College Health: Eating & Fitness

Young women's version of this guide

college-studentsEating healthy at college isn’t as hard as it may seem. Most dining halls provide plenty healthy food options and many colleges have lots of fitness activities. This guide will help you to learn easy ways to make nutritious choices and include fitness into your schedule.

Dining Hall Dilemmas

What if I can’t find any foods I like?

If you are having trouble finding foods you enjoy:

  • Be creative. If you don’t like the hot food offered, 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.
  • Try all of the dining halls to figure out which ones you like best. Many colleges have multiple dining halls that may serve different foods and meals. Some colleges post their menus online so you can see which dining hall will be serving what food every day.

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:

  • Whole fruit (such as an apple, banana, or orange)
  • Trail mix
  • Granola or energy bar
  • String cheese
  • Nuts
  • ½ 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.

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
  • Cheese
  • Hummus
  • Beans
  • Peanut butter

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, high fiber carbs, and healthy fats such as oils, nuts, and fish. The table below provides suggestions of foods to choose at meal times.

Instead OfTry
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 or soy milk
French friesBaked potato or sweet potato
Sugar-sweetened drinks (such as soda or juice)Water or seltzer
Baked goods, ice cream, or other specialty dessertsFruit
Nutrition 101: The Food Groups
Food GroupBenefitsNutrition Tip
Dairy & Dairy SubstitutesBuild strong bones.Have a serving of low-fat dairy such as milk, cheese, or yogurt three times a day.
CarbohydratesProvide energy for muscles & brain.Include 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 system.Try 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 muscle.Try 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 to learn about your options. It may be helpful to meet with your college nutritionist if you experience 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, calzones, and wings. What should I do?

Healthy eating is about moderation. If you eat healthy, regular meals throughout the day, you may still be a little hungry at night, so it’s okay to eat these types of foods every once in a while. Try suggesting healthier snacks like the ones listed above next time you and your friends need late night fuel.

Top 5 Healthy Eating Tips

  1. Make time for meals. Eat 3 meals per day plus snacks to give you energy that will last all day and keep your metabolism active. Pack healthy snacks such as fruit and a granola bar when you’re on the go.
  2. Balance your meals. Eat healthy meals that include at least 3 different food groups 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. Dairy foods and alternatives (such as soymilk) provide protein and vitamin D, as well as calcium. Your bones still need calcium to stay strong.
  4. Stay hydrated. Drink water even if you’re not thirsty. Waiting until you’re thirsty to have fluids means you’re already partially dehydrated. Proper hydration is important for exercise and helps to maintain healthy skin and organs. Pack a bottle of water in your backpack or gym bag.
  5. Choose appropriate portions. When you’re at a restaurant, plan on taking half of your meal home or spilt an entrée with a friend. When eating at the dining hall, take smaller portions first. You can go back for more if you’re still hungry. Food portions in restaurants are often more than one serving size and they continue to get bigger.

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. Meet new people and fit exercise into your schedule.
  3. Walk as much as possible. Walk instead of driving or taking a bus whenever you can and consider taking the long way back to your dorm instead of taking a shortcut. Walking is great exercise and is something most people can fit into their day.
  4. Take a fitness class as a course. Consider weight lifting or swimming. This is a good way to include fitness into your routine and earn credit.
  5. Check out your college gym. Sign up for free or reduced price memberships that college gyms or fitness centers often offer.
If you’re concerned about eating at college, here’s a tip on how to bring it up with your health care provider: How do I eat healthy in college?