Between keeping up with school work, maintaining a social life and compulsively signing up for extracurriculars to pad your resume, it’s no surprise that health often falls to the wayside for collegiettes. Sleep? Never heard of it. Daily servings of fruits and vegetables? Do french fries and popcorn count? And taking care of your skin? Well, it gets clean enough in the shower, right?
The high-stress, non-stop lifestyle of college students is a breeding ground for bad health habits that will not only damage your mind and body now, but can also set you up for more health problems down the line.
“It’s a lot easier to add something good than it is to quit something bad,” explains author and personal trainer Sarah Hays Coomer. “But when good habits are strong they have a tendency to crowd out the bad ones without too much effort.”
Here are some of the worst health habits you may not even realize are bad. If you’re already guilty of some of these habits, no worries—we’ve got you covered with ways to combat them.
1. Poor nutrition
Nutrition is so important, and yet it’s so broad. Poor nutrition includes over-indulging in junk food, caffeine or alcohol. We all know to avoid sugars and simple carbs, but sometimes they’re the dominant ingredients in foods that are easy to eat on the go. However, these foods mess up our bodies’ standard functions, like insulin production and blood sugar regulation, along with a long list of other side effects.
“Crash diets, high junk food intake and sugar are all correlated with stress, anxiety and even depression,” explains Dr. Elesa Zehndorfer, an academic author on the physiology of emotional and irrational acts. “It even impacts on mental ability, again, meaning that study ability can be compromised.”
Eating more vegetables and less processed foods is much easier said than done. But being fully conscious of what you eat is the first step to making healthier choices. Focus on what your body needs rather than what your taste buds want.
“The best solution is a diet high in good fats, protein, good carbs, low in sugar and little alcohol,” advises Dr. Zehndorfer. “If this is a hard sell to students, a great multivitamin, omega 3, 6 & 9 blend, and a calcium, magnesium and D3 supplement can be a real lifesaver.”
Instead of stocking up on processed snacks, keep fruits and vegetables on hand in your dorm or apartment so when you’re hungry, you have a healthy, satisfying snack on hand. You also won’t be tempted to mindlessly snack!
2. An “all or nothing” dieting mentality
We’ve all been there: we set out to eat healthy and do okay for a couple days, but then we slip up and indulge in one cookie or piece of pizza. Suddenly, we’re riddled with guilt and decide if we’ve already messed up, it doesn’t even matter anymore. Cue the junk food binge and the subsequent uphill battle to get back on track the following days.
“Thinking that they’ve ‘blown’ a ‘diet’ if they have one cookie or one drink is very common in young women, especially,” says certified personal trainer and author Helen Ryan. “They work hard all week exercising and making healthy food choices. Then they go out with their friends, indulge a little, and they’re eating poorly for days or weeks at a time afterward. Might as well, since they blew it.”
First of all, don’t get so caught up in “dieting” that you deprive yourself. One dessert won’t hurt you, but thinking that one dessert is the end all, be all will. It doesn’t make sense to beat yourself up over one splurge and then follow it up with a junk food binge.
“Just because you ate something that you didn’t think you were supposed to, doesn’t mean that you then have a license to keep eating whatever you want,” explains Ryan.
Think of your food intake as a budget. If you bought something above your price range, would you keep spending on other unnecessary expenses, or would you modify your intake elsewhere?
In the end, your nutrition is all about a balance of give and take. If you slip up at lunch, focus on eating a healthy dinner and do the best you can in the present. And if you have a bad binge day altogether, relax. Being healthy is a process, and you’re allowed to make mistakes and cheat occasionally. Start the next day fresh instead of worrying about something that happened in the past.
3. Mindless eating
Stress-eating, late night snacking or munching on snacks while watching Netflix are all staples of a collegiette diet. However, snacking mindlessly means eating empty calories with little to no nutritional value, and warps the essential purpose of food. Food is meant to be used as fuel for our bodies so we can feel our best in the classroom, gym and out with friends. Not only can mindless eating lead to weight gain, but it can also establish a habit of making us think we’re hungry when we aren’t, creating an emotional connection to food that causes us to eat as a form of comfort.
Switch from eating mindlessly to mindfully—listen to your body and what it actually needs, and try to keep junk food out of the house. That way, when you’re tempted to snack, you only have healthy options. Opt for satisfying choices like nuts, fruits or vegetables. Also, avoid storing food near your workspace or carrying snacks to your laptop when you’re scrolling through Facebook. Another tip is to drink more water—sometimes it is easy to confuse hunger with thirst.
4. Not getting enough sleep
We’ve all heard about the importance of a good night’s sleep at one point or another, but that’s because sleep is essential to all components of your health and well-being.
“When I get a good night of sleep, it carries over into other parts of my life, like I have more energy to work out and I don’t just snack unhealthily because I’m tired,” says Rylie O’Meara, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll be too tired to mentally focus. Your ability to make decisions can become impaired, which results in indulging in poor quality foods. Lack of sleep can also leave you too fatigued to exercise and feeling low in energy altogether.
“Late-night parties and study sessions are a natural part of college life, but sleep truly does matter for health and happiness,” Coomer says. “When we’re tired, we all have a tendency to eat more sugar, salt and fat; we’re too tired to get out for a walk or a yoga class, and studying gets a lot harder too.”
Sleep deprivation can accumulate over time as well.
“If people aren’t getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, over time, it adds up to persistent fatigue which makes everything harder,” explains Coomer.
Additionally, sleep deprivation can harm your emotional health. Lack of sleep can result in poor stress management, trouble focusing and sometimes even anxiety and depression. Not to mention, sometimes we’re downright grumpy when we’re tired.
“Lack of sleep does not allow the brain to repair and re-charge and lower stress levels. It increases daytime tiredness and reduces endurance and focus,” explains Dr. Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, and Medical Advisory Board Member of the Nutritional Magnesium Association. “If your life/job requires focus, clear thinking and energy, lack of sleep will affect your brain functionality, you will make mistakes, you will not catch opportunities and you may not get along with co-workers, siblings, family or your boss.”
Make sleep a priority. If you’re staying up late because of schoolwork, try eliminating distractions so you can work more efficiently during the day. Decide a series of manageable tasks you need to accomplish, and when you finish them, call it a day. Additionally, put your phone away when you finally go to bed—the light from your screen can make it difficult to fall asleep, which means you’re losing some precious shut-eye.
5. Not taking off makeup before going to sleep
After a long day of school or a late night out, all you want to do is crawl into bed and go to sleep: even if that means waking up with day-old mascara smeared under your eyes and acne breakouts the following few days because your pores were too clogged with foundation.
“As a dermatologist now, I would tell my younger self to just take that extra minute to wash my face,” explains Dr. Asma Ahmed. “Removing your makeup before bed is important with prevention of acne breakouts and aging such as fine lines and wrinkles. Heavy eye makeup, concealer and foundation can congest your pores, and sleep is an important time for cells to regenerate.”
Like sleep, sometimes you just have to make things a priority to get things done. Make washing your face a habit like brushing your teeth. You can even keep a box of makeup removing wipes by your bed if it helps! Dr. Ahmed recommends Neutrogena or Simple wipes.
“An easy way to accomplish this even if you’re feeling tired is to keep makeup cleansing wipes in your bathroom cabinet or even at your bedside if you’re a frequent offender,” says Dr. Ahmed. “Micellar water is also a great product that is easy to find these days in the drug store which you just dab onto a cotton swab and gently wipe your makeup away.”
Plus, micellar water doesn’t need to be rinsed off!
6. Foregoing sunscreen
We’ve been convinced that tan is pretty, and sacrificing our skin to the sun is worth it for the short-term bronze glow (or red burn if we’re being realistic). However, it seems like every older person’s advice to children, teenagers, and young adults is to wear sunscreen.
“The most important advice I can give as a dermatologist is the age-old adage of wearing your sunscreen,” says Dr. Ahmed. “Most of a person’s sun damage is during their youth, before they turn 18 years of age. Unfortunately, there’s no delete button on sun damage. We know for a fact sun damage causes skin cancers, wrinkles, sun spots, and skin laxity.”
Catherine Markley, a sophomore at Notre Dame, agrees that protecting your skin is important.
“Since I have been a victim of bad sunburns in my life, I have recently made an effort to wear sunscreen daily,” says Catherine. “The results are better than I expected and I rarely sunburn now. My skin feels softer and actually tans better.”
Nowadays, SPF can be found in daily moisturizers, makeup and even in a pill form. Scour the drugstore aisles for a daily product that includes SPF, preferably at least 30, and reapply every few hours. Remember, the sun is still at work on a cloudy day, or even when you’re indoors. If you feel like you need to be tan, try a bronzer or self-applying tanning lotion instead of a tanning bed or laying out. Better yet, embrace your natural skin instead of frying it now and regretting it later.
7. Damaging hair to the extreme
In the era of ombré hair trends and blowout bars, opportunities to damage hair are everywhere.
“It’s easy to go overboard on damaging hair procedures and styling,” says Dr. Ahmed. “Damaging procedures can actually injure the hair follicles and cause hair loss over time. It is important to keep these procedures spaced out in time, and at a minimum.”
Give your hair some R&R with a hair mask every week or so, and lay off the straighteners, curling irons and bleaching hair dyes. Give your hair a break from the constant coloring, chemical straightening or perms by waiting longer periods of time between touch-ups. Dr. Ahmed advises a two to three month or longer time span between treatments. Embrace your natural hair and learn some simple styling techniques for air-dried hair.
“When dyeing your hair, choose a dye within three shades of your natural color,” advises Dr. Ahmed. “Dyeing hair darker is less damaging than lightening. Also, use a restorative, deep conditioner weekly, and oils such as argan oil, to keep scalp and hair protected.”
In the end, being mindful of the way we treat our bodies and the priorities we set can transform our bad habits into healthy habits. And we don’t have to change overnight—we can start out simply by deciding to be better.
“The smallest habits matter the most. It’s difficult for people to believe that small, behavioral changes will make a difference in the long run, but, in fact, daily rituals and routines shape our lives,” explains Coomer. “They determine our quality of life and how much energy we have to put toward our goals.”
Taking small steps might be frustrating, but they will pay off in the long run. Coomer advises to shift our thinking from breaking bad habits to adopting good ones. Try to pick one positive habit that you can reinforce on a daily basis in categories like diet, exercise, sleep and relationships.