Conventional wisdom holds that people with good nutritional and fitness habits feel better and therefore perform better. A new study at North Carolina State University takes this concept a step further, linking physical exercise with academic success. For every hour spent in collegiate recreational exercise per week, study participants averaged a GPA increase of .06. Further, this same amount of exercise increased participants’ odds of graduating by more than 50%.
Regular exercise and optimum nutrition for college students allows young adults to make the most of their learning environment. Eating well helps students improve focus in the classroom and better retain new material. Outside of the classroom, students who prioritize health and wellness experience less illnesses, and are often more able to manage the stressors of college life. The best colleges and universities equip incoming students with actionable information about student health services, recreational fitness options, and nutrition for college students.
Is the Freshman 15 Real?
Incoming college freshmen have a lot of new experiences to master, like living among strangers in a dorm, managing a strange class schedule, navigating a new social scene, and functioning without a parental safety net. Aside from these challenges, friends and families warn them about the dangers of the Freshman 15. Is this a thing? College freshmen do tend to pack on pounds due to a combination of several factors: lack of parental supervision, overly generous campus meal plans, stress, excess snacking, alcohol consumption, and limited exercise.
In a 2008 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, freshmen gained 5.5 times more weight than the entire student body, but the average freshman weight gain was only 2.7 pounds. That isn’t an enormous amount, but even at that rate a student would gain nearly 11 pounds by graduation. Such steady gains in early adulthood can set students up for a lifetime of struggles with weight, ultimately leading to costly health problems. A 2012 study at Auburn University demonstrated that “70% of [students] packed on pounds by graduation (an average of 12, and up to 37 pounds). The overall percentage of students found to be overweight increased from 18% to 31%.”
Benefits of Proper Nutrition and Regular Exercise for College Students
Establishing healthy college nutrition and fitness habits has immediate and long-term benefits. In the short term, taking care of your body simply means you feel better. When you operate in peak condition, you’re better able to focus in class and retain complex material. Managing stress with exercise and healthy snacking not only keeps your body and brain in shape for learning, but also puts you in top form for managing the social and career connections that will carry you into adulthood. Over the long haul, making nutrition and fitness a priority at this point in your life establishes habits that will benefit you for the rest of your life.
USDA Food Pyramid Evolution
In the mid-1800s, about half of all Americans operated or worked on farms. As a result, the government established the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to support the farming industry. Around the turn of the century, USDA-funded research in agricultural chemistry led to the discovery of the calorie and its relationship to the human metabolism. Shortly thereafter, the USDA shared this knowledge with the public in the first of its food guides, which were designed to guide consumers in the selection of a diet that leads to optimum health. Over the decades, the USDA has updated its food guides to reflect the most current knowledge. Below, we’ve summarized four recent iterations.
Food Wheel: The USDA’s food wheel represented a shift in thinking. Previous food guides had focused on a balanced diet, gently suggesting minimum daily servings. Research in the mid-eighties hinted that diet could be an effective tool to prevent disease, particularly by avoiding fatty foods. The food wheel incorporated this knowledge by separating food into six major groups, and recommending minimum and maximum daily servings of each.
Food Pyramid: In 1992, the nation’s primary health concern was heart disease. To combat the surge in cardiovascular disease and further emphasize that fats should be avoided, the USDA released the food pyramid. While designed to be more understandable than the food wheel, it placed grains and pasta as the largest food group at the base of the pyramid. Americans misinterpreted this as official permission to increase their consumption of carbohydrates.
MyPyramid Food Guidance System: The nation’s overconsumption of refined grains led to a rise in obesity and related health problems by 2005. In response, the USDA modified the food pyramid, pairing the concepts of nutrition and fitness for the first time. Launched with the tagline Steps to a Healthier You, the updated illustration included a graphic figure climbing a set of stairs. Vertical wedges attempted to define daily serving recommendations for each food group.
ChooseMyPlate: Perhaps an acknowledgment of its previous struggles, the USDA abandoned its previous, complicated visual food guides and launched the ChooseMyPlate initiative in 2011. Representing an easily recognizable plate of food from the viewpoint of the eater, the graphic clearly and cleanly represents the relative serving sizes of the five major food groups.
Recommended Daily Intake
The USDA recommends a daily caloric intake based on gender and age. There are many variables, however, that can affect an individual’s metabolism. A person’s particular build, height, weight, and general activity level inform daily caloric needs. The chart below can be used as a general guideline.
Tips for Eating Healthy at the Campus Cafeteria
The dining hall can be mind-boggling to a new student. Delicious options abound, and most meal plans allow students to eat to their hearts’ content. Nervous and excited freshmen may be tempted to overeat, stress eat, or mindlessly consume whatever’s being served in the shortest line. However, most schools offers nutritious options along with the sundae bar, and it is now easier than ever to eat well in college. A bit of forethought can help you create a diet that keeps you healthy and on your toes. Consider these tips and tricks for maintaining a good college nutrition regimen.
- Decide what you’re going to eat before you go. Most schools post menus online, and some even offer online pre-ordering. If you’ve already committed to an omelet, it’s a lot easier to bypass the cinnamon rolls.
- Be creative with the salad bar. Consider using a salad as a base for a piece of chicken or salmon from the grill. Salad bars are excellent places to experiment with new flavors and textures, so sample those cheeses, seeds, or nut toppings that you haven’t had before. Be wary of high-caloric salad dressings though; it’s best to keep those on the side.
- Soda is filled with sugar and synthetic products that have no nutritional purpose. Drink water. If you need caffeine, coffee or green tea is far healthier. If you must have carbonation, spring for some fizzy water; its cost does not compare to the toll soda takes on your body.
- Tweak an entree to make it healthier, like ordering meat without gravy or a burger without the bun. Instead of a carb-heavy side like potatoes or pasta, consider fruit or veggies from the salad bar.
- Make it a habit to take at least one piece of fruit with you when you leave the dining hall, particularly in the mornings. Fruit travels well in backpacks and sustains you much better between classes than junk food; if you’re on a meal plan, it’s probably free.
Eating Healthy on a Budget
Many college students opt to move off campus at some point after their freshman year. Maintaining healthy habits in your first apartment brings a new set of challenges. Without an all-you-can-eat meal plan, you are truly on your own at mealtimes. Most students in this situation also have limited funds, so dining out every day is as unrealistic as it is unhealthy. The best way to exercise control over your wallet and your diet is to purchase and prepare your food yourself. The budget-minded college student has nothing to lose from learning to cook simple, healthy meals.
Eating well on a budget takes a little planning and time, but it pays off in good health and steady finances. Consider these three important steps:
- Create a meal plan
Most grocery stores hold weekly sales that they advertise in mail flyers, newspapers, or online. To optimize your food budget, organize your menu planning around your store’s sale. Select protein sources that you can afford, and base your dishes on them. Along with each entree, plan any side dishes. When you purchase short-lived ingredients, use them at more than one meal to minimize waste.
- Make a grocery list and gather coupons
When your meal plan is complete, list every ingredient you lack. You already know which items are on sale at the grocery store, but don’t overlook the usefulness of coupons. Savvy college students can search online and print coupons from countless sites; others find ways to save using mobile apps like Ibotta or Shrink.
- Shop from your list only
Only at this point are you prepared to food shop. While it may be tempting to skip meal planning and coupon clipping, it’s difficult to feed yourself on a budget without these steps. Stick to your budget, and stick to your list in the grocery store.
Other ways to shop smart include purchasing generic or store-branded items wherever possible; bulk-purchasing dry goods or paper products; overbuying meat and freezing excess portions; and joining customer loyalty programs. When it comes to fresh foods, skip anything that’s pre-cut or pre-portioned and do it yourself at home. Cut and bag your own fresh fruits and vegetables into enticing, bite-sized, and easily accessible containers, and do it right away lest they lie forgotten in the crisper. Check sell-by dates carefully as you shop, and don’t be shy about grabbing fresher items from the back of the shelf.
The Best Foods for Body and Brain
The body of knowledge in food science has come a long way since the early days of the USDA. A greater understanding of our food’s biological and biochemical components allows those of us in the first world to tailor our diets toward specific outcomes in our bodies. Dietary adjustments are, of course, useful in weight loss, and can also ameliorate the effects of some chronic illnesses. College students can also benefit from simple dietary tweaks. Read on to learn which foods you can eat to help you make the most of your college experience.
Best Food for Studying
Solid nutritional choices boost brain function. Optimal learning takes place when students are able to focus in class, grasp complex concepts, and retain new information over time. Foods that are known to encourage blood flow to the brain lead to better concentration and memory, like the following:
Fish are practically swimming in omega 3 fatty acids, a vital compound for enhancing memory. In one study, people who regularly took omega 3 supplements increased reaction time by 20%.
Long touched for it’s wake-me-up abilities, coffee improves mental activity. In studies, well-caffeinated mice formed new memories 33% faster than the uncaffeinated mice.
Eggs are a rich source of choline, a nutrient with the nickname “memory vitamin”.
Healthiest Ways to Stay Awake
Students everywhere struggle with fatigue, and coffee or energy drinks may seem like the easiest solution. However, tea and coffee drinks are often filled with sugar and cream, while energy drinks are loaded with caffeine, sugar, and synthetic additives that can be harmful. These drinks do provide a burst of energy, but it’s quickly followed by a sugar crash that is likely to leave a student more tired than before. Instead, stay alert for longer with these healthy options:
Packed with natural sugars and fibers, bananas are complex carbohydrates that deliver an organic energy boost. Because they travel well, bananas are an ideal snack for a college student on the go.
- Brown rice
Brown rice is rich in manganese, a mineral that produces energy from protein and carbohydrates. Because it’s affordable and pairs so easily with lean proteins and vegetables, brown rice is a great solution for a college student facing a marathon study session.
Thirst may be the first symptom of inadequate hydration, and dehydration commonly results in fatigue. To keep sleepiness at bay, divide your weight in half and drink that number in ounces of water every day.
Best Food for Working Out
Exercise is as important to student health as good eating habits. Most college students have access to fitness centers on campus, and opportunities to take fitness classes or join intramural sports. Whatever workout routine suits you best, the right combination of nutrition and fitness can maximize your results, and may even minimize unpleasant after-effects like soreness. Consider a few workout-specific nutritional tips below:
Smoothies can pack a lot of nutrients into one drink. Fresh fruit provides complex carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C. Greek yogurt adds protein and calcium, and a scoop of protein powder can prepare you for a workout or help your body recover afterward.
Oatmeal is a whole carbohydrate that digests slowly, making it an excellent choice for pre-workout fuel. High in both protein and fiber, oatmeal is an affordable option that is both low-calorie and filling.
In small portions, the simple carbohydrates in starchy pasta can kick start your workout. While the old rules about heavy carb-loading before exercise have been disproven, small portions of pasta digest very quickly. Eaten shortly before a workout, pasta can give you a healthy boost without adversely affecting your blood sugar.
The high levels of protein found in beef, plus its iron, zinc, and B vitamins, lend themselves well to the development of lean muscle. Grass-fed beef is ideal if it can be managed on a college student’s budget; beef from this cattle has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid, which promotes muscle mass.
Beets have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently. This root vegetable’s high level of betaine offers student athletes increased muscle strength and better joint health. Beets are also known to aid in post-workout recovery.
- Ezekiel bread
Ezekiel bread is made from organic sprouted whole grains and legumes, and is therefore a complete protein. Ezekiel bread contains all nine of the essential amino acids that the human body is unable to manufacture, and which are necessary for muscle growth.
- Green Leafy Vegetables
Students who eat quantities of green leafy vegetables may experience increased flexibility. Watercress, kale, spinach, seaweed, chard, and collard greens all contain high levels of water, which aids in flexibility.
Spirulina is an algae that is packed with nutrients like vitamin B-12, beta carotene, and gamma linolenic acid. Spirulina’s properties are known to prevent cramps and boost muscle strength, leading to greater flexibility. In powdered form, spirulina can easily be added to smoothies.
- Barley Grass
Barley grass contains beta carotene, iron, and calcium, all of which aid in muscle flexibility. While barley grass itself isn’t common, students can add barley juice extract to their diets.
Best Foods for Sleep
A good night’s sleep is essential, especially for a college student navigating campus life. Occasional sleep disturbances are normal, but consistent interruptions may force students to look for solutions. Over-the-counter sleep aids offer tempting immediate relief, but these medications are expensive and can be habit-forming. Instead of resorting to pharmaceuticals, sleep-deprived students can eat certain foods that may help them fall asleep naturally.
Cherries are the only natural food sources of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. After drinking tart cherry juice, study participants slept for an extra 25 minutes each night.
Bananas contain tryptophan, which helps the body produce the brain’s calming hormones. Plus, the hefty doses of magnesium and potassium helps calm overstressed muscles.
Almonds contain magnesium, which promotes sleep and muscle relaxation. Half a cup of almonds contains 48% of the daily recommended magnesium intake.
Best Foods for Stress Relief
Stress is a given in an academic environment, and many students cope with stress by eating. Students must take care, however, to eat for the right reasons. Binge-eating or stress-eating may only let off steam, rather than actually nourishing one’s body. Eating with unhealthy motivation can lead to weight gain, health problems, and even eating disorders. Instead, eat when you’re hungry, and combat stress with these healthy foods.
- Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is packed with flavonoids, which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure. The magic number: 40g, or about 3 squares of a large bar.
These squishy fruits stress-proof your body. Avocados pack sky high amounts of vitamin E, a key ingredient to strengthening the immune system.
This vampire-deterrent has other powers too: this herb’s antioxidants battles immune system invaders. Plus, garlic helps relax blood vessels and increase blood flow. In an eating habits survey of 8,500 people who lived past 100, two foods stood out: onions and garlic.
Staying Active While at College
Exercise time doesn’t magically appear in college, but students who carve out the time rarely regret it. Rather than avoiding the gym because it means yet another commitment, college students should recognize the innumerable ways that exercise can make their lives easier; the health benefits are too important to ignore. Besides avoiding the Freshman 15, students who maintain a healthy activity level can prevent long-term health issues that arise from weight gain, such as cardiovascular problems and diabetes. Young adults who work out regularly enjoy better moods, better sleep, better concentration, boosted immune systems, and more energy. Students with packed schedules may find that physical exercise goes a long way towards alleviating stress. Finally, the campus fitness center can provide a social outlet, offering opportunities to meet people outside of the classroom.
Fitness Tips for Online Students
Distance learners must pay special attention to health and wellness. Because these students study at home, their college experiences are far more sedentary than those of their campus-based peers. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic identified alarming health risks in sedentary adults, defined as those who spend at least four hours per day seated in front of a screen. According to Mayo, sedentary adults are 50% more likely to die than their active peers, and 125% more likely to suffer serious cardiovascular events. Fitness for college students, particularly online ones, should be a high priority. If you’re a distance learner, pay special attention to these tips for integrating movement into your day.
- Much of the assigned work in distance learning courses is self-paced. When working on lengthy sections of material, break the assignment into manageable segments while interspersing movement between them. A brisk walk outside raises the heart rate and stimulates deeper breathing, and a dose of fresh air boosts your immune system. Studies have also proven that shorter study periods lead to greater long-term retention. So take a break and go outside.
- All college courses feature assigned reading, and online courses may require considerable amounts of it. Depending on the options at your local fitness center, you may be able to log some reading while you exercise. Prop a textbook on a treadmill, stationary bicycle, elliptical machine, stair climber, or other stabilized machine and learn while you move.
- Consider your online course’s resources and how they might adapt to a set of headphones. Recorded class lectures lend themselves especially well to this. Text can be converted to audio with text-to-speech apps, for example, and textbooks may also be available in audio format. When you’ve determined how to make this technology work for you, you can study while you run, cycle, or lift weights.
Apps to Help Students Stay Fit
Fortunately, there is no shortage of apps in the nutrition and fitness space. Designed to streamline workout experiences, offer motivation, connect users, and track progress towards fitness goals, these apps can make exercise more appealing to a reluctant student. While we it’s nearly impossible to list all of the options here, consider these interesting choices:
|For the runner who’s easily bored, this app delivers an immersive experience in the form of an audio running game. Each run features the user, invigorating music, a guest cast of (audio) zombies, and a suspenseful mission written by an award-winning novelist. Though not a typical exercise app, Zombies, Run! promises an entertaining way to work out, complete with a reason to keep coming back.|
|Under Armour’s popular fitness app allows for incredibly easy food and activity tracking. Students select foods from a database of over 5 million entries with accurate, pre-filled calculations of calories and macros. The app is designed for speed, with features like barcode recognition and recipe importability. My Fitness Pal also allows user to easily input and track fitness, measuring activity against food intake. The app has a built-in step tracker, and also integrates seamlessly with FitBit, AppleHealth, RunKeeper, and most other major fitness devices on the market.|
|This app is designed for people who are too busy to work out, and is ideal for college students. Sworkit focuses exclusively on bodyweight exercises that require no special equipment and can be done anywhere. Its exercises are suitable for beginner to advanced athletes, all of whom may choose from targeted plans or develop customized workout solutions. Users select workouts of any length and intensity among thousands of options.|
- MindBodyGreen MBG is one of the most comprehensive health and wellness resources available on the internet today. Covering healthy eating, green living, exercise in many forms, and mental and emotional well-being, MBG delivers informative articles and interviews by the dozen. Video classes that explore a wide variety of subjects are also offered for purchase.
- Sleepyti.me This genius site instantly calculates your optimum bedtime based on your schedule in the morning. Even better, it also performs a backward calculation that tells you the ideal time to wake up if you go to bed immediately. All calculations factor in proven sleep science that hones your ideal wakeup time to the minute, eliminating morning grogginess.
- MyFridgeFood It can be hard to prioritize proper college nutrition when you’re standing in front of an open refrigerator. More interactive than the average nutrition website for college students, the MyFridgeFood site presents viewers with a user-friendly checklist of items that typically reside in refrigerators. Check off the items you see in front of you, and the site will generate a recipe that uses those ingredients.
- American Sexual Health Association The ASHA website discreetly offers all the information a college student may be too embarrassed to ask out loud. ASHA delivers informational articles, Q & A’s, current scientific research, and gender-specific information to readers.
- DoYogaWithMe Arguably one of the most comprehensive sources of free yoga available today, DYWM offers streaming yoga classes for yoga practitioners at any level, including first-timers. Classes range from a few minutes to more than an hour in length, and they explore all major schools of yoga practice. Hundreds of available classes assure variety.