College Health: Eating and Fitness 101

Young men's version of this guide
dining hall

Eating healthy at college may seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are some ideas on how to meet your nutritional needs both in the dining halls and in dorms, followed by some general guidelines on how to feel like your best self while at school!

Most college dining halls provide plenty of nutritious options and campuses usually offer a lot of opportunities for fitness and activity.

Dining Hall Dilemmas

What if I can’t find any food I like?

Be creative. If you don’t like the hot food offered, try to combine foods from different areas of the dining hall. For example, add a grilled chicken breast to a salad, or take veggies from the salad bar and add them to a sandwich or a wrap. Many colleges have multiple dining halls that may serve different foods and meals. Try all the dining halls to figure out which ones you like best. Some colleges post their menus online so you can see which dining hall will be serving what food every day.

What if I’m a vegetarian?

Most colleges offer vegetarian entrees at all meals such as veggie burgers, tofu stir fries, and pasta dishes. Create your own vegetarian meal at the salad or sandwich bar by adding protein-rich ingredients such as eggs, hummus, beans, peanut butter, tofu, or cheese.

What if I have class during meals?

Food is the fuel your brain needs to help you think, so make time to eat. If you skip a meal, you may have trouble concentrating, get a headache, or feel like you didn’t get very much out of your class. Even if you can’t sit down for a full meal, pack a healthy portable snack such as fruit and a granola or energy bar, trail mix, or a sandwich. Sometimes dining halls will offer sandwich ingredients at breakfast or boxed lunches if you are unable to make it to a dining hall during lunch.

How can I maintain good nutrition?

Try to eat a variety of foods and don’t skip meals. To get the most out of your meals, eat a balance of lean protein, whole grain carbohydrates, and healthy fats such as oils, nuts, and fish. The table below provides suggestions of foods to choose at meal times.

Instead Of Try
Fried foodsGrilled or baked foods
Refined grains (such as white bread and white rice)Whole grains (such as whole grain bread and brown rice)
Sugar-sweetened drinksWater or seltzer
Baked goods, ice cream, or other specialty dessertsFruit
Nutrition 101: The Food Groups
Food Group BenefitsNutrition Tip
Dairy & Dairy SubstitutesBuild strong bonesHave a serving of dairy such as milk, cheese, yogurt, or pudding three times a day.
CarbohydratesProvide energy for muscles & brainInclude grains such as rice, pasta, bread or starchy vegetables, such as potato or corn at every meal. Choose whole grain options as often as possible.
FatsKeep you feeling full and absorption of some vitaminsInclude some fat such as olive oil, guacamole, nuts, or seeds at every meal.
Fruits & VegetablesProvide vitamins and minerals for healthy skin, hair, nails, and immune systemTry having at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day with a focus on different colors such as apples, carrots, eggplants, leafy greens, and bananas.
ProteinsMaintain muscleTry having fish, beans, eggs, tofu, peanut butter, chicken, dairy, or lean beef at each meal.

Using campus services can also help you maintain good nutrition. If you have any food allergies, food intolerances, or food preferences, talk to your campus food services director or dietitian to learn about your options. It may be helpful to meet with your college dietitian if you’re experiencing weight or appetite changes.

Dorm Room Remedies

I have a meal plan, but always get hungry between meals and at night when I’m studying. What should I do?

Keep your room stocked with healthy snacks you can grab when you’re hungry, such as:

  • Brown rice cakes
  • Canned fruit in natural juices
  • Crackers (whole grain)
  • Energy (or protein) bars
  • Fresh fruit
  • Granola bars
  • High fiber cereal
  • Nut butters (peanut butter)
  • Nuts (unsalted)
  • Oatmeal (packets)
  • Pita bread (whole wheat)
  • Popcorn (try the single-serving bag)
  • Pudding
  • Soup
  • Trail Mix
  • Tuna fish

If you have a fridge, try:

  • Baby carrots, broccoli florets, grape tomatoes, celery
  • Hummus
  • String cheese
  • Yogurt and smoothies
  • Water, flavored seltzer waters, and low-fat milk

Try to have protein with each of your snacks, for example, a brown rice cake with peanut butter or fruit and string cheese.

My friends order late night pizza and chicken wings. What should I do?

Healthy eating is about moderation, so don’t deny yourself food if you are craving it! If you skip meals during the day, you may be more likely to overeat late at night. However, even if you eat regular meals throughout the day, you may still be a little hungry at night, so it’s okay to eat a moderate portion of these foods every once in a while. It’s important to assess how you feel after eating that type of food late at night. If it effects your sleep or upsets your stomach, you might want to try different  late night snack options such as popcorn, fruit, or trail mix.

How can I maintain my health when I am in college?

Achieving optimum health status involves making healthy, nutritious food choices, eating proper portions, and getting enough exercise. Remember that weight status (how much you weigh) is not necessarily a good indicator of your health. Follow these tips to help you stay healthy during college:

  • Eat nutritious snacks. Stock your room refrigerator with snacks such as string cheese, baby carrots, hummus, and yogurt. Popcorn, granola bars, fruit and nuts are also healthy snacks but don’t need to be stored in the fridge. It’s okay to eat things like chips, or sweets, but be mindful of how much and how often you are eating these less nutritious choices. If allowed, bring fruit or other healthy snacks back from the dining hall to eat later.
  • Choose healthy options. Get in the habit of choosing healthy options and eating balanced meals when in the dining hall. Look for plant-based or lean proteins and choose whole grains such as whole grain bread, brown rice, and whole grain pasta. Be sure to eat fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and try to make them half of your plate. Some schools may have signs in the dining hall with symbols that indicate whether a food or dish is a healthy option. If you’d like even more guidance you can check to see if your school has a Registered Dietitian (RD) on staff to meet with and go over healthy dining options.
  • Stay Hydrated: Proper hydration is important for healthy skin and organs. Drink water even if you’re not thirsty. Waiting until you are thirsty to have fluids means you are already partially dehydrated. Pack a bottle of water in your backpack or gym bag.
  • Make Time for Meals: Eating 3 meals per day plus snacks will give you energy that will last all day and keep your metabolism active. Keeping to a regular schedule will help you fit these meals in, especially breakfast.Think about when you have time to visit the dining halls and when you will need to pack meals or snacks to take with you to class or your other activities. By planning ahead, you can make sure that you will have food when you are hungry and you can make healthier decisions instead of impulse purchases. Your school may also have a dining website, where you can check to see what is being served that day or week.
  • Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. All-you-care-to-eat dining halls and the stress associated with being in college, among many other things. can contribute to eating in excess of your body’s energy needs. Be conscious of how much you are eating (not just what you are eating) and practice eating until you are comfortably full, but not stuffed. Even if the cafeteria is serving lots of your favorite foods, try to stick with one entrée. You can always choose something different next time.  Dining halls tend to rotate food options on weekly or monthly schedules, so your favorite foods will likely be available again soon.
  • Make mindful decisions when eating late at night. It’s okay to eat a snack at night if you are hungry, but eating late night meals when you aren’t really hungry can be an unhealthy choice.
  • Be activeEven though you might not have gym class or after school practice anymore, you can still be physically active!. Being active will give you more energy and can also help you deal with stress.  If you are going to school in a new city or state, exercise can be a great way to explore the area! Here are some ideas:
  • Walk or bike to class: Be active on the way to class instead of taking the bus or car.
  • Join an intramural sport: This is a fun way to meet new people and fit in exercise, too.
  • Go for a walk with friends: Stay fit and catch up with friends at the same time. Instead of taking a shortcut back to your dorm, take the scenic route and get in a little extra exercise.
  • Take a fitness class as a course: This is a good way to include fitness into your routine and earn credit. Consider weight lifting or dancing.
  • Check out your college gym: Most colleges have a gym or fitness center that offers free or reduced price memberships. They may also offer classes such as yoga, spinning, kickboxing, and dancing.
  • Think before you drink. Alcoholic beverages are nutrient poor, meaning they contain calories but no beneficial nutrients. Drinking alcohol can lead to eating outside of hunger as well.
  • Be aware of your stress levelIf you find yourself frequently eating when you’re not hungry you might want to check in with your level of stress. Are you feeling sad about being away from home? Is the workload of your classes overwhelming? You might want to talk to someone in the school counseling center. They can help you identify ways to decrease your stress level.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep can affect the levels of hormones ghrelin and leptin which help to control your hunger and fullness feelings. If you’re lacking sleep you may feel more hungry or have a harder time feeling full even if your body doesn’t necessarily need the extra energy from food.