Of the many stressors college students face, I believe poor health and nutrition is near the top of the list. With the burden of college coursework, daily activities and financial commitments, health and well-being often take a back seat for many college students. But healthy habits don’t need to be overly complex. At the end of the day, health is the result of hundreds of daily habits that involve mindfulness towards eating and exercising. Developing these habits takes time and individualization, but the principles are nearly the same for everyone. So whether you’re a parent, teacher, or college-bound student, check out my top recommendations for a healthy body.
Be the Leader
Commit to being a leader rather than a follower. If your intention is geared towards creating a healthy lifestyle, you may not find many others who are walking that out at college. More likely, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for late night binges, and you may find yourself feeling pressured to conform to the social habits of those around you. Recognize the social and environmental cues, and reaffirm your commitment to the healthy you.
Planning ahead means there is structure to your day. From physical activity to choosing the right meals and snacks, planning and routine help ensure you stay on track, and you’ll have less stress as a result. Don’t rely on campus dining halls, restaurants or vending machines to fuel up. Many major campuses have made improvements over the years to include nutritious and tasty foods (eating healthy shouldn’t be boring after all), but in general, students aren’t given much opportunity in the way of nutrient-dense food choices.
In comparison to ultra-processed foods, which are found in abundance on college campuses, nutrient-dense foods are important because they are a rich source of nutrients and phytochemicals and are important for brain health. Another benefit of whole, nutrient-dense foods is that they provide satiety and reduce cravings.
Don’t forget about snacks! Nutrient-dense snacks may include a handful of raw nuts, a hard-boiled egg, or raw veggies. These can help stabilize blood sugar and ensure hunger levels remain in check.
Don’t Drink Your Calories
This is a rather easy one. Water makes up approximately 60 percent of the human body, so it’s very important to maintain adequate hydration. Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages are abundant in our culture, but happen to be particularly damaging to health. Sodas, sweet tea, fruit juices and the like contain empty calories and can drive up insulin, yet result in little to no nutritional value.
If you’re hooked on the stuff, try weaning off gradually. For example, the next time you order sweet tea, ask for half sweet and half unsweet tea. Continue this until you’re ready to reduce the sweet to unsweet ratio to 1:4, and then eventually you’ll be at a point where you drink unsweet tea with a splash of sweet. At that point, you’ll either find you don’t like tea after all, or you will come to love the taste of pure, unsweet tea.
Other options include infused water, club sodas, herbal teas, or for an added health benefit, cold-brewed green tea, which is a rich source of anti-oxidants.
Exercise and physical activity have numerous health benefits. Exercise is great for physical fitness, of course, but it also has powerful benefits on brain health by boosting feel-good chemicals that fight stress and depression. Fortunately, campus life provides many wonderful opportunities to stay active. Try joining an intramural team, or simply commit to walking or riding your bike to classes. It’s important that exercise is fun and social, as well as practical so look for the opportunities that are available to you.
Lean and Clean Protein and Vegetables
This is a mantra I repeat often to clients. Instead of a long list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to eating, focus on getting high-quality lean protein choices and non-starchy vegetables at each meal. The protein and fiber in these foods will nourish your body and leave less room for junk food. In the nutrition world, we refer to this as crowding out.
Finally, make a commitment to moderation and balance in all things. College life can be exciting as well as stressful, but with the right attitude and planning, college can be a place where budding young adults thrive physically, socially and spiritually. Understand that food is neither good nor bad, but how and why we eat matters.
Foods should be nourishing, as well as pleasing to the senses. Practice mindful eating and exercise habits with a focus on unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods and movement that is right for your body, and you will be in abundant health.
Christy Strouse, RDN, CPT, LMBT, is a registered dietitian with Prisma Health Nutrition Solutions.
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