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Making Healthy Nutritional Choices Transitioning into College

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College student eating dinner in dorm.

In the excitement of going off to college it can be easy to overlook discussions of important skills you will need. One of the key concepts often missed is nutrition and health. For many, college is the first time you are in charge of what foods you eat and what your schedule looks like, so having a good understanding of nutrition before you’re on your own is vital.

Unhealthy food choices can decrease your energy and lower your ability to concentrate. The American College Health Association reports that most students eat less than the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Weight gain is a common concern for college students. Studies show the average weight gain is around three pounds for first-year college students, which is at a rate five times greater than the general population’s yearly weight gain! While some weight gain is normal, experiencing rapid weight gain above your body’s normal range can put you at a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

If you experience or want to prevent weight gain , it can be tempting to try fad diets or skip meals as a ”quick fix.” These behaviors don’t result in long-term weight loss and can lead to disordered eating behaviors. A registered dietitian nutritionist can develop an individualized nutrition plan specific to your goals.

Eating in college poses a variety of challenges. Many dorms are not equipped with kitchens and limit appliances permitted  in your room. You will also likely stay up later for study sessions and be tempted by high-calorie, late-night snacks. On-campus dining halls might offer limited food options or buffets serving foods that are not necessarily healthy. Also, your stress levels may rise at college, which can negatively impact eating choices.  

Dorm cooking

Before moving into college research cooking appliances allowed in your dorm room. Rules for appliances including mini fridges, microwaves, rice cookers and hot plates vary by school. Find recipes for the approved cooking appliances and save/bring them with you. The Real Food Dietitians website has some great options!  

Late night snacks

Keep your room well stocked with healthy, easy snacks and food staples! After a long day of classes or a late-night study session, you might be tempted to eat out or get food delivered. Keeping nutritious options in your room can prevent impulsive cravings for fast food.

Below are some dietitian-approved choices to keep on hand:  

  • SkinnyPop® popcorn
  • Kashi® granola bars
  • Nut butter and crackers
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Mini guacamole packs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Low-fat cheese sticks or BabyBel® Light Cheese
  • Naked® smoothies
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Tuna 
  • Grilled chicken
  • Applesauce
  • 100-calorie packs of nuts
  • Whole wheat bread

Stress & alcohol

Due to all the changes and added independence, it is common for college students to experience high stress levels. Many studies show stress is associated with consumption of high-calorie low-nutrient foods which can result in weight gain. Finding ways to relieve stress is important for your health.

College is a time when many people first consume alcohol. In the college atmosphere heavy drinking is common and can lead to weight gain and other health risks. Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink can help prevent both of these outcomes. 

Making a meal

If college is the first time you are putting together a meal, it can be overwhelming. Following guidelines of what to include on your plate can help. 

MyPlate is an easy-to-use resource from the USDA that gives you a personalized plan on how much of each food group you should aim to eat daily. 

The general guideline is:

  • Half of your plate: Fruits and vegetables
  • A quarter of your plate: Grains
  • A quarter of your plate: Lean protein  

When you are in the dining hall, out to eat or making a meal at home, try to create your plate following these guidelines. This will help control portion sizes, maintain a balanced diet and provide the energy you need to keep up with schoolwork and activities at college.

Overall, the transition to college poses many challenges to your nutrition. By using some of these tips you can help create long-lasting healthy behaviors that will carry on through adulthood. These tips can help you to avoid rapid weight gain during your college years which can help in lowering your risk for health issues in the future.


Article provided by Kennedy Kroll, Oklahoma State University Dietetic Intern, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition.