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. 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)
Whole milkLow-fat milk or soy milk
French friesBaked potato or sweet potato
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 low-fat 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. Eating greasy food late at night might not make you feel great though so try suggesting healthier late night snack options such as popcorn, fruit, or trail mix.

Top 5 Healthy Eating Tips:

  1. 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. For healthy portable snacks, packing fruit, nuts or a granola bar helps when you’re on the go.
  2. Balance Your Meals: Eating healthy meals that contain foods from at least 3 different food groups will help to ensure that you get all the nutrition you need to stay healthy. Be sure to eat different combinations of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and healthy fats throughout the day.
  3. Don’t Forget Dairy: Your bones still need calcium to stay strong. Dairy foods and alternatives such as soy milk provide protein and vitamin D, as well as calcium.
  4. 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.
  5. Choose Appropriate Portions: Food portions in restaurants or takeout places are often more than one serving size and they continue to get bigger. You may not realize how much food you’re actually eating. When you’re at a restaurant, plan on taking half of your meal home or spilt an entrée with a friend. When eating at a dining hall, take smaller portions to start. You can always go back for more if you’re still hungry.

Top 5 Ways to Include Fitness in College Life:

  1. Walk or bike to class: Be active on the way to class instead of taking the bus or car.
  2. Join an intramural sport: This is a fun way to meet new people and fit in exercise, too.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Eating well and staying fit at college doesn’t have to be a challenge. Remember to balance nutritious foods, exercise regularly, and follow the tips in this guide to stay healthy at college.