A College Student’s Guide to Health and Nutrition

The college lifestyle often lends itself to weight gain for many students. Busy schedules, poor eating habits, active socializing, and a lack of exercise are some of the common contributing factors to this increase in body weight. While this is often less than the well-known “Freshman 15,” it’s important to take the right steps toward being healthier, which includes eating more nutritious meals.

Eating a Balanced Diet

A balanced diet is one that provides the nutrients that one’s body needs to both function at its best and reduce the risk of obesity and other diseases. These nutrients primarily come from eating foods from all of the major food groups. One way to accomplish that is to create a healthy plate at mealtime. To start, half of one’s plate should be colorful and leafy vegetables and fruits. Whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, should take up a quarter of the plate. In the remaining quarter, there should be a source of protein. Ideally, this protein will come from fish, eggs, beans, skinless chicken, or nuts. When eating red meats, lean cuts are best.

To meet the daily requirement for dairy, students should strive for three servings a day of low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, yogurt, or other dairy-based foods. And in a balanced diet, roughly 25 to 35 percent of one’s calories should come from fat. Excellent sources of healthy fat are foods like avocado, olive oil, or ground flax.

Tips for Healthy Eating

Skipping meals and ordering fast food are common unhealthy habits for college students. Often, finding the time to shop for and prepare food can be difficult between courses, studying, and extracurricular activities. As a result, students turn to unhealthy but convenient food options. Fortunately, there are ways to incorporate healthy eating into one’s diet that aren’t time-consuming or expensive.

Breakfast is an important meal that can provide energy and improve concentration. Instead of skipping breakfast, prepare a tasty dish at night before bed. Overnight oats, for example, are simple to make and easily eaten on the run. Even a basic breakfast, such as fruit and low-fat milk, granola, or a protein shake, is quick and healthier than eating a fast-food breakfast or no breakfast at all.

Keeping healthy snacks on hand like unbuttered popcorn, rice cakes, dried fruit, or even low-fat yogurt means you’ll have something quick to grab when midday hunger hits that’s healthier than food found in vending machines. A healthy snack can also provide a needed energy boost and help control cravings for unhealthy food.

The dining hall salad bar is another option for a healthy meal, but be careful: Although they’re tempting, bacon bits and creamy dressings can turn an otherwise healthy salad into one that’s high in calories and fat.

In college, it’s difficult to avoid greasy foods all the time, especially when roommates or friends order pizza or other unhealthy food late at night or during study sessions. It’s OK to eat these things occasionally, but don’t make a habit of it. When a craving for takeout strikes, think about whether you’re actually hungry first. If you are, eat smaller portions of the healthiest options on the menu, such as a grilled chicken sandwich instead of a crispy chicken one.

Eating Well for Mental Health

What students eat during college affects not only their physical health but their mental health. Diets that are high in sugar, refined starches, and processed foods increase the risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Saturated fats also contribute to depression and can cause problems with memory and cognitive function later in one’s life.

Foods that contain healthy fats, such as cold-water fish, walnuts, and avocados, are good for the brain and reduce the risk of anxiety and depression. Berries, whole grains, and lean protein are healthy foods that can help regulate mood and keep the brain healthy.

What students eat also directly affects their gut, which is connected to the brain. Poor gut health impacts one’s mood and mental health. Meals should include foods that promote a healthy gut, such as probiotics, including kimchi and kombucha. Eating high-fiber foods, like an apple as a snack, or including other fruits, vegetables, and beans in meals is also beneficial to one’s gut by feeding and keeping the bacteria, or microbiome, healthy.


Exercise is as important to college students as getting the right nutrition. Students who exercise benefit from increased cognitive function, reduced stress, and improvements in mood and energy levels. It also helps with staying physically healthy and fit. Ideally, students should aim for 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise per week. You should also do strength-building exercises twice weekly.

Skateboarding, riding a bike around campus and to class, or walking to class are a few simple ways to incorporate exercise into a daily routine. If jogging or biking, do so with a friend when possible and avoid isolated areas when alone or when it’s dark. Students who prefer the gym can go there between classes, using the time spent on equipment like a treadmill or stationary bike to do classwork. Basketball, tennis, and other sports are fun ways to exercise and stay motivated.


A lack of sleep is yet another problem that plagues college students and puts their health and academic performance at risk. It can contribute to weight gain, stress, and an inability to concentrate and function properly. Students who don’t get enough sleep are more susceptible to colds and other illnesses and are also at greater risk of depression and anxiety. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep for the best academic performance, and take short 20- to 30-minute naps for an energy boost if possible.

Making and adhering to a sleep schedule is a technique students can use to improve or get more sleep. It is also beneficial to stop studying and put away all electronics, including one’s phone, 30 minutes before going to bed. This, along with relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation, can help the mind unwind from a stressful day and result in a better night’s sleep. Skipping caffeine at night can also make it easier to fall asleep.