Tips for Eating Well at College
By Kelly Burch
Our culture is constantly buzzing about healthy eating and “wellness.” But all that focus can be, well, unhealthy. Some say that health is something we can (and should) control, but that’s often not possible, especially for people living with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
But we often can control how we take care of our bodies and how we foster a healthy mindset about food. So, instead of thinking about “healthy eating” on campus, try shifting your focus to eating well in college by making nourishing and sustainable choices. Or, think of these as the true tips for eating healthy in college.
Recognize Your Independence Around Food
As a child, your parents or caregivers probably prepared your meals, or at least did the grocery shopping. In high school, you ate lunch when the teachers said it was time. But in college, there’s likely no one telling you where, when, or what to eat.
All that newfound freedom might feel exciting, intimidating, relieving, or just plain weird. Check in with yourself about how you’re feeling.
Eat a Variety of Foods, Frequently
All the advice about what and how much to eat can be overwhelming. So, try taking a simple approach: Eat frequently throughout the day, making sure you take time for snacks and meals between classes. Aim to get a wide variety of foods so that you’re more likely to get your nutritional needs met without a lot of effort.
Remember that food serves a number of different purposes—from brain fuel to nostalgia to immunity-boosting to celebration—and, accordingly, there’s room for all kinds of foods in your life. There’s a time for kale, and there’s a time for cupcakes, and neither is inherently good or bad!
Maintaining this kind of flexibility will support your goal of variety, as well. It’s a good idea to check in with yourself from time to time—what sounds good right now? Your cravings usually align with something you’re missing, whether it’s hydration, protein, or comfort.
Acknowledge the Emotions of Food
You might have heard that emotional eating is a bad thing, but that’s not the case. There’s no denying that food has an emotional role in our life!
We eat for many reasons, including to comfort ourselves. Making a favorite childhood meal might be just the antidote to homesickness, for example. Sometimes, we eat just because it’s delicious, and that’s OK, too. The key is to notice when you’re full or when your emotional need is met and then stop there.
Eating frequently on campus is sometimes easier said than done. So, plan ahead for how you’ll feed yourself, especially on busy days. Consider keeping a stash of snacks in your backpack or packing a portable meal that you can eat between classes.
Try not to wait till the end of the day to eat, because this is more likely to lead to overeating, which can trigger a cycle of shame that carries through the night to the next day. You have much more important and interesting things to use your brain space for than what you ate the day before! So, set yourself up for success by meeting your needs throughout the day.
During college, you’ll likely have access to foods that you never had when you were growing up. It’s a great chance to try new dishes and expand your palate. Remember: You don’t have to try everything at once. You have years to explore all the new flavors! Take your time with it and enjoy.
If your brain is telling you that these new options are scarce, that’s fear talking. So, talk back to your brain and let it know that you have the rest of your life to be in charge of what and how much you eat. Check in with yourself.
With your newfound independence—not to mention getting older, moving less or more than in high school, increased stress, changes in your schedule, and access to dining halls—there are bound to be changes in how you eat as well as changes in your body. This is normal!
But if you start to notice significant shifts, or if you feel obsessive about your relationship with food, you may be at risk for developing an eating disorder. Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of eating disorders and when to get help if you need it.