Eating Well in College: Why & How

Since moving into an apartment for my 3rd year of undergrad, my entire college experience has changed drastically. I’m more frequently in a great mood, my stress has drastically diminished, and I have a lot more energy. There are a few reasons why, but I attribute a large part of this to my dietary changes and new mindset towards eating.

The common narrative surrounding a diet, especially for collegiate women, has a focus on losing weight and attaining an ideal physical appearance. According to the International Journal of Women’s Health (2012), a significant proportion of collegiate women practice dieting (43%) with the aim of losing weight (32%) despite 78% of them having a healthy BMI. It appears that even though many women are already healthy in terms of their weight, their focus is still on the number on their scale rather than the amount of dietary fiber they’re getting or their vitamin intake, to name a couple of things. In other words, it seems that a popular mindset towards eating is “avoiding certain foods when eating” instead of “eating well”; one implying rigid restrictions and ideals, the latter implying flexibility and balance.

When I say “eating well”, I mean both a substantial and sufficient amount for the body (quantity), but also more whole foods and balanced meals (quality).

A healthy diet is far more than a propellant to a healthy physical body, although this is a major benefit to eating well. Beyond caring for the physical body, eating well is also a way to nourish the soul and mind. Personally, I’ve noticed that exercise, classes, and even being with friends has become more pleasurable since making better dietary decisions. I’m more present, full of energy, and joyful because of the ways I choose to fuel my body, and have found that many other women I talk to have had the same experience.

I see the primary way to manage a healthy diet as each person cooking meals with ingredients that are both nutritious and enjoyable to them. Over time, cooking can then also be viewed as a way to practice self-care. However, cooking healthy and nourishing meals takes some time and effort, and it can be a bit intimidating to implement dietary changes. So, why and how do you eat well?

WHY

1.  Eating well changes the trajectory of your day

Eating eggs or some oatmeal versus grabbing a few nuts or grapes on my way out of the door absolutely changes how the rest of my day goes, beginning shortly after my meal (or pseudo-meal, in the latter case). It’s a similar case for all of us: when we make a choice about breakfast, we’re also picking whether or not our stomachs will growl in the first half of lecture, how distracted we’ll be, and how cranky we’ll be. Previous studies have led to the generally accepted belief that eating a substantial meal at the beginning of a day is crucial for supplying the energy our bodies need for maximum efficiency throughout the day. Our bodies usually awake with depleted blood sugar levels and requires an ample energy supply to get going. I haven’t just learned these lessons through my classes, but also through my own lived experience. I’ve experimented enough to know the effects of either choice, and have concluded that my performance in my classes and my mood is better when I choose to eat substantial breakfasts. Neglecting to eat well in the morning also increases the likelihood of overeating later in the day. Considering all the benefits, waking up 20 minutes earlier is a sacrifice worth making!

2. It works to aid other parts of your body

We mentioned how eating well affects your brain, and therefore your mood, concentration, and performance, but it also works on other bodily systems.

Your diet also affects your sleep, which is crucial to your wellbeing. Sleep heals your body; repairing your blood vessels, restoring your muscles, and bolstering your immune system. Eating a balanced diet (including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, etc.) as well as portion control is key for good rest.

Diet certainly isn’t the only contributor to skin health, but appears to play a role. Vitamins and nutrients help cells properly turnover, or reconstruct and repair. Skin care becomes less of an issue too if you manage it with your diet, making it one less worry in your life. Managing acne with a healthy diet may involve consuming more hydrating foods (i.e., fruits and vegetables) as well as foods containing omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., nuts, avocado, and salmon) which strengthens your skin’s surface.

The skeletal system is largely influenced by its supply of calcium and vitamin D, the muscular system builds and repairs itself with the aid of protein rich foods, your digestive system greatly benefits from fiber and probiotics, and the list goes on.

3. Taking care of yourself is a way to demonstrate your self-worth

Since your mind and body are powerful, they are worth tending to and need to be nourished well! Be kind to yourself — make your food colorful if it helps you enjoy what you’re eating. Your wellness is worth the effort.

4. It slows you down

Cooking balanced meals forces me to fit breaks into my schedule, and I personally like allotting the time to do something relaxing. Meal prepping also presents an opportunity to take a break (more on how to do this at #3 below). Reserving Sunday afternoons for meal prepping has been a great life decision for me. I thank myself during the week for pre-preparing food when I’m bouncing between activities, but also because I choose to take rest on Sundays in general. I use the time to ground myself mentally before a new week begins, and of course taking this time off requires pushing myself earlier in the week. If you want to try this, try cutting some of your frequent phone-scrolling sessions during the week and reserve your rest time in bulk. Besides, while you cook, you can also listen to a podcast, call your parents, or whatever else you’d like to do with the time to relax.

Here's a great recipe for preparing your own granola to use throughout the week.

5. It can save time and relieve decision fatigue

As discussed in the point above, making large batches of food and meal prepping saves a lot of time throughout the week. It not only saves the time it takes you to walk to your apartment and cook, but it also saves you time it takes to figure out what to make. Decision fatigue hits us when we’re tired of making decisions, so we resort to easy and quick options. A combative strategy for this is making ‘the easy and quick option’ something healthy you already prepared.

When you’re running out of the door in the morning, you’re likely going to grab the quickest thing you see, so make (or buy) a big batch of something healthy so you have that available. Try making breakfast bars or a breakfast casserole if you want something to last you several days. This way, you won’t have to face decision fatigue every morning and instead reach for something quicker and less nutritious.

A general pro tip: make good decisions for yourself earlier, while it’s easier. For example, when you’re at the store, decide to buy mostly healthy snacks rather than unhealthy ones. If you have an abundance of both at your apartment, you’re likely going to reach for the unhealthy ones first before being forced to eat the healthy ones. By buying mostly nutritious snacks, you’re making the choice to snack smartly while you’re at the store rather than at 2am when you’re studying, when the decision would be a lot harder.

Simple snacks: bell pepper, beets, and hummus; avocado on rice cakes.

HOW

Disclaimer: There is no perfect regimen for everyone; nutrition will look different for all of us since we’re unique biologically and socially. Factors such as socioeconomic status, differences in BMI, physical or mental diseases, cultural differences, occupation-related constraints and more all affect how we nourish ourselves. Since there’s no perfect regimen for a human body, the “How’s” I have listed here are a few ideas and lessons I’ve learned that seem to consistently help promote eating well.

1. Stock up on nutritious ingredients

An obstacle a lot of people face is the financial burden of purchasing healthy meals. In college, it seems like a no-brainer to spend $5 on fast food rather than $12 on a tiny Buddha bowl. However, if you can get to a grocery store, it can be possible to purchase healthy foods at reasonable prices. As tempting as it is at the store to purchase a bunch of unhealthy frozen meals, try purchasing ingredients for meals you can make at home.

It’s cheaper to buy things in bulk, so stock up! Large bags of grains and legumes, frozen vegetables, canned sources of protein, and a spice or two can go a long way. Check out this video a YouTuber created about eating on a budget similar to a person on the extreme poverty line here.

 

2. Stock up on toppings to get creative and make healthy eating more fun

Again, it’s cheaper to buy things in bulk. Invest in bags of toppings that you enjoy using on top of your salads, soups, or bowls. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m cooking, I know I have a bag of greens in my fridge or nuts in my cabinet, so I frequently add them to random things I’m cooking which makes dishes feel more balanced and creative.

3. Meal prep

As discussed, pre-preparing meals saves time, money, and effort during the week. Making boxed lunches at the start of a week has especially helped me save so much time and decision fatigue.

Be sure not to pack for more than 4-5 days to avoid getting tired of the same meal, and your food spoiling in the fridge.

4. Practice mindful eating

Try not to spend all your time eating on your phone or on Netflix. I know that this one can sound a bit odd, but being more present while eating helps you develop a bodily intuition of how your body feels as it eats certain foods. Eating without as many distractions also helps you eat and digest more slowly and leads to greater meal satisfaction. Eating slowly also gives you an opportunity to reflect for some time before starting your next activity. In this way, eating becomes a time to slow down and relax rather than an activity to bulldoze through before jumping into the next item on your to-do list.

Eating with friends can help facilitate this too, and is my personal favorite way to enjoy food!

5. Don't forget about balance

You don’t need to boot out every saturated fat from your diet to have a healthy body, as some may believe. Enjoy the other treats life has to offer you; you don’t need to skip feta bread movie nights or donut runs with your friends to live a healthy lifestyle.

6. Think strategically about what to eat and when

Before you sleep, take it easy on high-fat foods since they take longer to digest and will often lead to uncomfortable bloating and indigestion. Before exercising, take in some easily digestible carbs to power your workout.

Quick plug for beets as a pre-workout food: Beets are like magic for your stamina!

Beets raise nitric oxide in your body, and there are some conflicting studies about what this actually does (either increases blood flow and lung function or simply helps de-stiffen artery walls), but either way it seems to increase endurance. Not everyone may notice a difference, but I have, so if I know I’ll be working out later I put a dollop of this roasted beetroot hummus on whatever I’m eating for lunch if I have a batch prepared in my fridge.

7. A few more random tips

  • Your brain notices when you’re chewing things! Chewing sends satiety signals to your brain, so while smoothies and pressed juices are nutritionally valuable, you may want to eat your veggies and fruits rather than drink them if you want to feel more satiated off of them. This may help you fend off the urge to reach for junk food afterward to feel more full.

  • Coffee → Matcha 
    • Matcha is a type of green tea, but the plant is grown in the shade which increases the amount of L-theanine in the leaves. L-Theanine is a glutamate, which are generally known to assist in learning and memory. It also lowers anxiety.
    • One of matcha’s major advantages to coffee is that drinking it doesn’t lead to the crash most coffee drinkers are accustomed to. It’s theorized that this is because caffeine and L-theanine work synergistically to provide a longer, more sustained energy release and resultantly a more clear, alert state of mind.
    • Matcha has so many benefits for the body; I’m surprised more people haven’t made the switch. Some say it tastes a bit grassy and bitter, so if you don’t enjoy the taste, you could put it in your smoothies, oatmeal, pancakes, and even muffins to cover it up. 
    • If you’re like me and thoroughly enjoy the taste of coffee, there’s no need to kick it out of your diet. Just make the switch in late afternoons to less intensely skew your sleep schedule or on exam dates (for focus and fewer jitters on top of your stress!).

A creative matcha recipe I found in a cookbook while I was abroad.

In summary, there are so many additional wins in your life for choosing to nourish your body. Let the healthy foods you eat be the ones you like. Don’t force yourself to eat a bag of lettuce if you hate it – avoid developing a poor relationship with the idea of eating healthy food. Try recipes that look appealing to you; it makes eating healthily feel like a fun hobby rather than a chore or punishment. Allow cooking to be an outlet for your creativity, and a way to care for your mind and body well because you’re worth the care. Have fun out there!