HealthLeader

An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Be Smart and Eat Right

A college guide to healthy living

From the ‘Freshman 15’ to the ‘Sophomore Slump,’ weight gain is a huge concern for most college students. And there’s reason to worry: Studies show that college students gradually gain weight each year.

Weight gain can be attributed to a variety of factors, including buffet-style dormitory eating, erratic class schedules, stress, studying late at night, being away from the familiarity of home and increased consumption of alcohol. In the midst of these busy times, it can be easy to put health on hold.

With the new school year well underway for most college students, here are a few easy tips for working toward a healthy you while working toward that degree:
 

  • Eat Breakfast. Mom always said breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Now you can thank her for the advice because research supports it. If you don’t eat breakfast, your metabolism decreases and hunger hormones increase, which results in a sluggish metabolism and intense hunger—a recipe for weight gain.

    Breakfast does not have to be a sit-down brunch. So, nosh on a source of protein, whole grain and fruit in the morning to get your metabolism going and keep your hunger hormones in check. Having no appetite in the morning is a sign that either dinner was too big (or too late in the evening) or your metabolism is a tad off. Give breakfast a chance for one or two weeks, and it’s a good bet you’ll be hungry in the morning…which is a good thing! Good examples of a quick and easy breakfast are:
    • 1 Tbsp. peanut butter on one piece of whole wheat toast or English muffin and an orange or banana
    • 1 cup dry cereal, hard-boiled egg and an apple or plum
    • 3/4 cup cooked oatmeal, 1/2 cup berries (or 2 Tbsp. raisins) and a 6 oz. plain, low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Eat Every Three to Four Hours. Pack healthy snacks with you so you don’t find yourself starving in class and turning to unhealthy options. By eating every three to four hours you keep your metabolism humming along and also keep yourself from overeating during your next meal. Here are some ideas for quick and portable snacks to carry in your book bag: 
    • 1 stick of light string cheese and 12 whole wheat crackers
    • 12 dry roasted or raw almonds and an apple or pear
    • 2 Tbsp. peanut butter or 2 oz. turkey slices on two slices of whole grain bread
    • Make your own trail mix. Combine 1/4 cup of mixed nuts, 1 cup of whole grain cereal and 2 Tbsp. of dried fruit, like raisins or cranberries.
  • Be Prepared. Buy healthy items at the grocery store for your dorm room or apartment. Shopping at the grocery store is not only friendly to the waistline but also kind to the wallet. Eating out all the time is expensive! Think fruit (pears, apples, bananas, grapes), raw nuts, non- or low-fat Greek yogurt and milk, high-fiber cereals, whole wheat crackers, turkey slices, string cheeses, tuna pouches, beans, eggs, whole wheat versions of bread, pitas and pasta, natural peanut butter, frozen or raw veggies, pretzels and hummus. This way, if you’re starving while studying late at night, you’ll have healthy options around. You’ll also have healthy, quick options for breakfast and snacks.  
  • Create a Healthy Plate. In general, half your plate should be fruits and veggies; 1/4 should be protein and 1/4 starch. If eating out, load your plate first with veggies and lean protein and then your starch (brown rice, pasta, potato, etc.). College campuses commonly have salad bars (easy on the salad dressing), sandwich stations and healthy snack options available. Avoid foods that are fried and opt for foods that are baked or grilled. Some diners even have icons or some indicator that a specific item is healthier. 
  • Party Smart. You do not have to party like a rock star most nights of the week just because your friends do. You can still go out and enjoy your friends without a binge-drinking session. After all, alcohol is metabolized like fat, has extra calories, slows down fat burning and stimulates appetite. Alcohol reduces inhibitions for healthy eating. Let’s face it—most people would rather take on foods such as pizza and cheesy quesadillas rather than healthier options after a late night of drinking. Alcohol mixers are loaded with sugar and calories as well. In short, have fun and be safe…just limit the booze.  
  • Find Movement. Yes, find a way to move throughout the day. Take the stairs, walk between classes instead of sitting, and, if nothing else, stretch. Consider doing push-ups, sit-ups or air squats during study breaks. As many campuses house recreation centers (with the cost generally included in tuition), use your spare time on campus (or off) to get a workout in. You will find that the burst of energy from exercise will give you a bigger boost than a cup of coffee or a high-sugar, caffeinated energy drink.  
  • Network. Find a workout buddy, a community event, workout club or intramural sports activity. Exercise is the best way to relieve stress and finding other active students will keep you accountable (and social, too). Use sports as your electives, if possible. Aim for some activity three times per week at any time of the day.   
  • Sleep. Oh, that! Aim for at least six or seven hours per night. Yes, a tough one, as any past student can attest. Late night papers and studying cut in on the valuable zzz’s, which is understandable. First, you will need to change your perspective on sleep. A decent night’s sleep increases alertness, keeps hunger hormones in check and makes us feel better throughout the day. All of these benefits of a good night’s sleep are qualities for a successful student. Consider changing your school schedule to get the required hours of sleep. 
  • Reduce Stress. The college days are nothing if not stressful, and stress is a proven detriment to health if we cannot find ways to manage it. Anxiety and stress can increase cortisol and adrenaline—hormones in the body that increase or delay appetite (until it boomerangs!) and wreak havoc on metabolism. Stress can keep our brains looping on recurrent thoughts at night, thus reducing valuable sleep. Take a moment each day to breathe, to take breaks from the books, the computer, the syllabus, and go for a leisurely walk. From time to time, you should call a supportive friend or parent. Ask your teachers for extra help or find a study group. Invest in a yoga or stretching DVD that you can put in your laptop or pull up one on YouTube. 

Find healthy ways to manage your lifestyle, diet and stress. The college experience will be more enjoyable. 

Shannon Weston, MPH, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who recently joined UT Health Services. If you would like to improve your overall health and well-being, Ms. Weston can help you with nutrition assessments, weight loss/weight management, diabetes education, meal planning and preparation, sports nutrition and more. To make an appointment, call 713-500-3267.