Nutrition Basics for College Students

Nutrition advice in the popular media is often misleading and confusing. This can make it especially difficult for college students to learn to eat healthy while on their own for the first time. Other factors that can contribute to a less than ideal eating pattern for college students include busy class and activity schedules, living in a new environment, and peer pressure to be thin. This article will help guide all college students, from freshmen to graduate students, on a path toward healthy eating behaviors.

It is common for college students to skip meals throughout the day. For some, this may be caused by class schedule, and for others it may be a strategy to lose weight. Unfortunately, many students are unaware of the detrimental effect this has on the body.

“Skipping meals can lead to fatigue, an inability to stay focused, and weight gain,” said Carly Jakstys, registered dietician at the Campus Health Center. “To stay fueled throughout the day, it is important to eat every three to five hours!”

Instead of feeling famished by dinner time, eating regularly will reduce the urge to overindulge and increase a person’s ability to choose healthier options. For students with class schedules that make it impossible to eat lunch, try having two quick snacks about three hours apart. Snacks should be around 200 calories and include a carbohydrate and a protein.

Example snacks

  • One tablespoon of peanut butter with a medium apple
  • Three cups air-popped popcorn with three tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
  • One toaster waffle with a half a cup of blueberries and two tablespoons low-fat yogurt
  • A small turkey sandwich made with one slice of whole wheat bread, one slice of turkey, and one slice low fat cheese
  • Trail mix made with twenty almonds, a miniature box of raisins, and a quarter cup of sunflower seeds
  • One six-inch tortilla with a quarter cup of black beans and two tablespoons of salsa

A regular eating pattern starts with breakfast, which means eating within one to two hours of waking. Breakfast tells the body to wake up and start performing its normal, daily functions.

“It’s harder for the body to stay focused and work efficiently when it hasn’t received fuel in twelve or more hours,” said Jakstys. “Despite most students knowing breakfast is important, it continues to be a challenge for many.”

One way to start having breakfast is to eat a small snack on the way out the door, such as a banana, and then trying to have a full meal in a couple hours. Another way to make breakfast more appealing for some is to substitute traditional, American breakfast items for last night’s dinner leftovers.

It is also important to be properly fueled for exercise. Many students who exercise in the morning often avoid eating anything beforehand. This means the body is in a fasting state and will break down lean muscle mass for energy instead of burning carbohydrates and fat.

“Having a snack (consisting of a carbohydrate and lean protein) an hour before exercise will lead to a more efficient and productive workout, as well as the building of lean muscle mass,” explained Jakstys. “If considering a full meal before a workout, allow two to three hours for digestion before starting exercise to avoid stomach upset.”

Want awesome college cooking ideas?

Cooking healthy meals can be easy, even at college. One of the best ways to make cooking simple is to pick out recipes before grocery shopping. Having a grocery list based off planned recipes will make the shopping trip more efficient and less expensive. One way to find healthy recipes is by following the Campus Health Center on Pinterest.

Another issue for students is struggling to eat healthy in the cafeteria. Although low nutrition, energy dense foods are offered, there are still plenty of healthy options available. One of the best tools for building a healthy plate is to use the MyPlate model, meaning fill half the plate with fruits and/or vegetables, a quarter with starch, and a quarter with lean protein. Following this pattern most often indicates the meal is in line with a healthy eating pattern.

“In addition to using the plate as a tool for building a well-rounded meal, hand measurements can be a good way to estimate portion sizes,” said Jakstys. “One fist (equivalent to approximately one cup) is the proper amount for starches, and the palm of the hand (equivalent to two to three ounces) is the proper portion of protein per meal.”

These tools can be used anywhere: the cafeteria, at a restaurant, or at home. For more information on the MyPlate model visit

Although general nutrition guidelines exist that can be useful for most people, nutrition remains a complex subject that must be individualized for optimal results. If you are interested in more individualized nutrition care, call the Campus Health Center at 313-577-5041.



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