Acing Nutrition in College

College students eating together.

There is so much for students to think about when returning to college, or heading off for the first time. Classes. Studying. Roommates. Setting up a dorm or apartment. Healthy eating?

Yes! Establishing healthy eating habits helps you feel and look your best. Your diet impacts your energy, sleep, weight, concentration, immune system…and even the look of your skin and hair.

Focus On the Food Groups

It’s important to eat a variety of foods from all food groups: fruit, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy. While it’s impossible to eat precise portions and recommended servings for each group, doing your best to follow the guidelines for a balanced diet will help your body get the proper nutrients and vitamins to stay productive and healthy.

The FDA recommends the following daily servings for college-aged adults with moderate levels of physical activity:

  • 2 cups from the fruit group
  • 3 cups from the vegetable group
  • 3 cups from the dairy group
  • 6 ounces from the protein group
  • 7 ounces from the grain group

To find recommendations for daily servings and calories based on age, sex, height, weight and activity level, visit

Each food group provides important nutrients that do different jobs:

  • Protein builds and repairs muscles and organs
  • Complex carbohydrates fuel the body and give you sustained energy
  • Healthy fats protect the cells in the body
  • Vitamins and minerals support a healthy immune system

A Word about Sugar and Other Sneaky Foods

While sugary foods and drinks may taste good, the quick energy boost they provide won’t last long and can lead to feeling sluggish and tired afterwards. Other sneaky foods to eat in moderation include salad dressings which often contain high amounts of saturated fat, sodium, sugar, and calories. Reaching for vinegar-based dressings over creamy dressings is often a better choice. Or simply use a splash of vinegar and drizzle of olive oil on salads. 

White, refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, pasta and crackers) also contain excess calories and sugar that can spike blood glucose levels and inflammation. Avoid a sugar crash. Opt for whole-grain varieties of pasta, bread, and snack foods that contain more fiber.

Experiment at the Dining Hall

Many college campuses have different dining halls or meal plan options. Try not to get stuck in a rut. Learn about the various dining options, and visit those that not only fit into your class schedule, but also offer the kind of food you feel good eating.

Many cafeteria-style dining halls allow students to get creative with their meals. If there’s a salad bar, add a piece of grilled chicken from the hot foods station. If grabbing food on-the-run, add some extra veggies from the salad bar to your sandwich or wrap

The creativity doesn’t have to stop in the dining hall. Bring ingredients back to your dorm room and see how you can elevate the taste (and nutrition) of common items:

  • Steam veggies in your microwave to mix into boxed noodles or canned soup
  • Add whole-grain cereal and pieces of fruit into yogurt to make a parfait
  • Slice and microwave an apple or pear with cinnamon and honey, then top with granola for a warm pie-like dessert

Keep Smart Snacks On-Hand

Sometimes class schedules make it tough to have a full sit-down meal. But it’s still incredibly important to eat healthy foods throughout the day to fuel learning. Try not to make poor food choices out of convenience. Keep an assortment of nutritious snacks that are easy to grab-and-go. Pieces of fruit, mixed nuts, a granola bar or even a good old-fashioned PBJ on whole grain bread are better choices than fast food.

Eat those healthy snacks while you study and do schoolwork. Research finds that eating a nutritious, balanced diet can help with concentration, mental recall, and even more efficient problem-solving skills. Nutritious snacks composed of a lean protein and high-quality carbohydrate help increase energy levels, stimulate metabolism and stabilize blood glucose. As mentioned above, unstable blood glucose can cause a “crash” and make your feel tired, irritable and restless.

Try these smart study snacks: 

  • A piece of fruit and a cheese stick
  • Carrot sticks and a handful of mixed nuts
  • Whole grain pretzels and hummus

Stay Hydrated

During a busy day, hydration can quickly fall down the priority list. While caffeine and sugar-laden drinks may provide a quick energy boost, they simply don’t provide sustained energy, and can be a sneaky source of calories. 

Keep your body functioning well and energy levels high by sipping on water throughout the day. Always keep a water bottle on hand. Elevate your water intake with a squeeze of lemon or lime from the dining hall, or give flavored seltzer water a try if you need a change of pace. Your body (and skin) will thank you. 

Be Cautious with Alcohol

Drinking alcohol in moderation, or not at all, is important for a number of health and safety reasons. Binge drinking (4 alcoholic beverages over 2 hours for women; 5 for men) at college campuses is linked to injuries, drunk driving arrests, and sexual assault. 

Drinking excess alcohol also poses a threat to your nutrition and diet. A study of college freshmen found that “moderate-risk” drinkers are more likely than “low-risk” drinkers to experience increases in appetite, overeating, and making unhealthy food choices after drinking. These same students also showed a higher propensity for increased BMI (body mass index) following their first semester compared to low-risk or non-risk drinkers.

When it comes to alcohol, like many other things, keep moderation in mind. Fuel your body with the right kinds of foods and drinks that will keep you feeling your best. Alcohol can remove fluids from your body at a quicker rate, leading to dehydration. The effects of dehydration include poor sleep, headaches and feeling “hungover.” 

Get Moving

A bit of physical activity each day is great for physical and mental health. It’s also easier to feel motivated to make healthy food choices when you’re moving your body consistently. Whether you have a jam-packed schedule or can plan time to exercise, there are a lot of ways to squeeze in some daily fitness: 

  • Walk or bike to class
  • Go for a jog with friends
  • Join an intramural sport 
  • Check out the campus gym or fitness classes

Bottom line: Enjoy yourself at college. Don’t stress too much about eating perfectly. If you’re craving some late night pizza with your roommate, go for it! Creating healthy habits really is all about balance and moderation.

author name

Christine M. Stabler, MD, MBA

Christine Stabler, MD, MBA, FAAFP is Medical Director of Women’s Health for Lancaster General Health, a family medicine physician with LG Health Physicians Women's Internal Medicine, and Vice President of Academic Affairs. She is a graduate of Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. She completed her residency at Lancaster General Hospital and a fellowship at Temple University Hospital.

Call: 717-544-3737

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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