How to Eat Healthy in College and Avoid Weight Gain on Cafeteria Food

How to Eat Healthy in College and Avoid Weight Gain on Cafeteria Food

If you're a college student and your clothes are getting a bit snug you're not alone – while the freshman 15 might be a bit of an outlier, students gain an average of 7.5 pounds in the first year of college. It’s hardly surprising that when students have tempting food options and all-you-can-eat situations under the college meal plan, they may overeat and gain weight.

Students are therefore encouraged to be wise and careful in the college cafeteria, to weigh their options and portions, so that the extra weight won’t creep up on them.

Which is quite hard to do, especially since there are so many other changes and challenges in college.

An alternative to guiding every single student toward better choices – ones they’ll have to make repeatedly – is to make the better choice the natural, easy one to make. This doesn’t eliminate choice; it just nudges towards the healthier option and makes it the default.

Strategies from behavioral economics

Making the healthy meal the default relies on some powerful behavioral tendencies. People choose defaults because they are the path of least resistance, because the default seems like the ‘normal’, recommended or popular choice, because it lets them avoid decision making and investigation, and because they may not even notice there are other options. Applying default options has proven to get more people to save for retirement and to take a flu shot.

So why not try it in the cafeteria?

A new study published in Public Health Nutrition tests this idea.

In an experiment involving 129 first-year students in two campuses, the students dined in 3 different lunch settings. In one, the default was optimal nutritionally, emphasizing energy dense foods and lower fat and energy items; in the second the default was suboptimal – it had more fat and saturated fat, and in the third the students had complete free choice with no defaults. In both optimal and sub-optimal settings the default was described in larger fonts, and was available immediately. Alternatives were in smaller fonts and entailed a 15-minute wait.

The defaults affected students’ choice a great deal.

In the optimal default setting 94 percent of students made what the nutritionist considered optimal choices. With the sub-optimal default none of the students made optimal choices. Without defaults, when the menu was wide open to any choice, 47 percent of students made the optimal choice. Likewise, caloric intake was greatest in the suboptimal default, followed by the free array menu, and lowest with the optimal default.

This proof-of-concept study suggests that defaults could steer undergrads to make lower-calorie, healthier choices.

Ways to stay fit at college

This is just one of many tools that can be tried in order to curb weight gain. And until school cafeterias make it easier to chose wisely, here are a few great tips:

Seek good options

Former Miss Massachusetts and 2016 college graduate Alissa Musto was training to compete at Miss Massachusetts and eventually Miss America and knows just how hard it can be to stay on track with healthy eating while in college. “One rule that I like to stick with in dining halls or buffets is dedicating 75% of my plate to foods where I can visually identify all of the ingredients: raw vegetables, hard boiled eggs, plain rice, garbanzo beans, fruits, etc.  Added salt and sugar can easily sneak up on you in the more processed and prepared foods, as well as sauces and dressings.”

Kelly Morgan, professor of health and certified health coach suggests to look up your school’s dining website. “Most schools provide nutrition information, and some even provide healthy eating tips tailored to the options on campus.” In between meals, with the rush of the day, plan ahead: “Prepare snacks or small meals that you can carry with you for long days on campus. Finding time to eat between classes is critical for keeping your energy up as well as maintaining focus. The snacks will also keep you from binging on the less healthy options in the dining hall or quick stop food places around campus.”

Get creative, suggests Rachel Graham, who while in college started an Instagram account devoted to eating healthier on campus. “Don’t be afraid to ask the employee serving you lunch at the diner if you can have today’s lunch on a bed of greens instead of bread. Can’t go to the diner? Have a back-up recipe that you can make in your dorm.”

“Invest the time in some free cooking lessons,” recommends Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Chris Shuff. “There are few things more attractive than finding out your date can cook delicious and healthy food. Develop cooking skills to gain a competitive edge in the dating world through physical and culinary seduction.” Another piece of advice from Chris: “Don’t practice your new freedom of choice by intentionally eating junk. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the independence without intentionally overeating on junk foods,”

“Avoid keeping junk food snacks in your dorm room to limit temptation,” advises Registered Dietitian Juliana Shalek. “Keep nutritious snacks on-hand such as Greek yogurts, nuts, whole grain crackers, low-fat cheese to eat between meals; your body often craves sweets during times of stress (aka studying for a big exam), so try not to keep sweets around to avoid munching on them.”

Watch what you drink

Yoga teacher Lilia Karimi gained the classic freshman 15 when studying abroad her freshman year. “As soon as I returned home and cut down drinking, I lost ten pounds. When you are drinking, your sleep patterns are off and you're typically also eating later at night- not helping out your metabolism.”

“Liquids are the biggest culprit of hidden calories, so stay away from excess juice, soda, and alcoholic beverages,” Says Academic Life Coach Nikki Bruno. “Carry a water bottle with you at all times. Get used to drinking your coffee black. Definitely avoid artificial sweeteners as they can actually cause you to crave more sugar and snack more!” 

Keep active

College campuses offer endless opportunities to work your body, and involvement in physical activities often also leads to better eating habits.

As the girl who gained (and lost) her Freshman 15, exercise physiologist and personal trainer Kathryn Alexander encourages every student to get involved as soon as possible: “There are so many active things you can do! You can join rec sports, play pick up basketball, jog around pretty neighborhoods, or even do more extreme sports like mountain biking. Check out your rec center – they probably have things you’ve never even heard of. You’ll be working on your health and fitness while meeting new active friends with similar hobbies.”

Get enough sleep

Set a sleep schedule, urges Registered Dietitian Julie Upton. “Sleep is involved in appetite regulation so when you skimp on sleep or stay up late (and likely snack), it's a double-whammy on achieving or maintaining a healthy weight. Most college students need at least 7 hours a night but many likely need more. When you are sleep-deprived, you are hungrier but the other issue is that the lack of sleep affects your willpower and resolve, so you'll eat unhealthy foods that you normally wouldn't touch."

Seek balance

“Start a meditation practice - even five minutes a day can help you gain more body awareness,” advises Lilia Karimi. “Finding this awareness helps you get more in touch with your body, your emotions, and having a better relationship overall so that your focus is on health - and not just losing weight.”  

“Remember, you get to live your life the way you want. You don’t have to plan and carry every meal with you – and you also don’t have to throw caution to the wind and live with wild abandon either,” concludes Kathryn Alexander. “You can go drink and have fun without having 10 beers.”

I’ll drink (some water) to that!

Dr. Ayala

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