Overcoming REAL World Challenges
What challenges do students encounter to
eating well in college? Which of the following are the most
significant for you?
Crazy busy schedule. I don’t have
time for healthy meals and snacks.
Late night eating. I study late and
need the energy to keep going.
Food is EVERYWHERE. It all looks so
good, and I want to eat everything.
Eating out - no control over
choices. Only high fat, unhealthy foods are available.
Eating out - super-sized portions. I
have to eat it all because I paid for it and want to get my
Recreational eating. I eat more when
I’m with my friends and when I hang out.
Social drinking. I drink more when
I’m with my friends and when I go out.
Emotional eating. I eat when I’m
stressed, procrastinating, lonely, bored, and/or depressed.
Emotional NOT eating. I can’t eat
when I’m stressed, when my life feels out of control, or when I
feel “fat” and unhappy.
Read on to learn some simple strategies
for dealing with these common food challenges.
Crazy Busy Schedules. No Time.
College life is often very different than the routine you used to
have. Previously, you may have eaten at regular meal times, slept at
regular hours, and followed a fairly predictable routine. Now, class
schedules change every semester, all-nighters are all too frequent,
and many students are juggling a heavy load of academics, work,
family, friends, as well as extracurricular activities at school or
in the community. It’s no wonder that three balanced meals are a
thing of the past. But, this departure can deplete your energy
levels and your nutritional health. To avoid these problems, try the
1. Respect the importance of mealtimes, and give up grazing.
If you don’t make it a point to sit down and eat, you’ll find
yourself eating a handful of chips here, a couple of cookies there,
a few slices of pizza there…. Even if what you grab has a high
nutritional value, grazing may not satisfy your hunger, and you’re
much more likely to overeat throughout the day without even
2. Plan ahead, and schedule time to eat 3 meals and one to three
snacks daily, preferably in a relaxed, comfortable environment.
Below are some ideas for planning ahead to make regular meals and
snacks a reality:
Go grocery shopping once a week so that you have a variety of
quick, healthy, and tasty foods available all the time.
Get up 10 minutes earlier so you have time for a quick morning
Try not to schedule too many classes back-to-back so you have time
If you work, actually take your lunch break (vs. eating at your
computer or desk).
Before bed or in the morning, pack your lunch and snacks for the
Cook in bulk on the weekends. Freeze leftovers in individual
portions so you’ll have quick, ready-made meals at home.
Reading over that list of examples, you might have been shaking your
head and thinking, “No way…there’s just NO WAY I have the time to do
any of those things!” If you’re still not convinced you have the
time, consider all the benefits of making the time.
Active college students need to re-fuel every 3-5 waking hours.
Blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels start to drop at about this
point. When blood glucose levels drop, your energy, concentration,
and mood drop as well.
If you fuel your body regularly, you’ll enjoy:
Better concentration in class. (You’ll be less likely to fall
asleep in class.)
More energy, less fatigue.
Better mental and physical performance.
Stronger workouts, so you’ll be able to build more muscle and burn
Better portion control. (You’ll be less likely to overeat due to
If you schedule the time to eat meals, you’ll have more choices
available. For example, if you schedule time to go to the cafeteria
or a nearby restaurant, you’ll have many more choices than what’s
available in vending machines or at your office.
If you plan ahead and make home-prepared meals, you’ll save money,
have better portion control, save time by avoiding long foods lines,
and have the option of eating in class, at work, or on the go.
If you allow yourself to eat slowly, at a table, in a relaxing
environment, you’ll be more likely to hear your hunger/fullness cues
(and, therefore, you’ll be less likely to overeat). NOTE: It takes
10-20 minutes for your brain to get the message from your stomach
that you’re full. If you inhale your food really fast, you’re likely
to consume excessive calories before you even realize you've had
Further, if you allow yourself to eat slowly, at a table, in a
relaxing environment, you’ll digest your food better and you’ll
enjoy your food more. Taking the time to actually enjoy the tastes
and flavors of food also has the added benefit of reducing post-meal
cravings. If you weren’t really satisfied with what you just ate,
you’re much more likely to crave “a little something sweet or salty
or bready or whatever” afterwards.
Late Night Eating
A lot of students are under the impression that eating late at night
(i.e. after 8 pm) is “bad” and contributes to weight gain. After
all, “you’re not burning those calories while you sleep, so anything
you eat late at night gets directly stored as fat on you abs, butt,
hips, and thighs.” This is NOT necessarily true!
Your body burns calories 24-7. It’s true that you burn fewer
calories when you’re sleeping than when you’re awake. BUT, it’s the
total amount of calories you eat (vs. burn) in a given day that
matters most – not the time of day you eat those calories. In other
words, if you eat an entire box of cookies (in addition to your
usual daily food intake), it doesn’t matter if you eat them at 7 in
the morning, 3 in the afternoon, or 10 at night. Any extra calories
above what you need, consumed at ANY time of the day, may be stored
as body fat.
You need to refuel every 3-5 hours. In college, you may get up later
and stay up much later than the average person with a 9 am to 5 pm
work schedule. If dinner was at 6 pm and bed is not until 1:00 am,
you definitely need to eat again around 10 pm. That late-night snack
will not turn to fat unless you eat too much over the course of the
To avoid the pitfalls of late night snacking, keep these tips in
1. HALT before you snack.
Before you decide to snack late at night, ask yourself “Am I really
physically Hungry?” If so, you should directly proceed to tip #2. On
the other hand, if you just ate dinner and you are not physically
hungry, ask yourself “what is really going on that is making my
desire to snack so high right now?” Is it simply out of Habit? Is it
that you’re feeling Anxious or overwhelmed, Lonely or depressed,
Tired or bored? If you eat for any of these non-hunger reasons,
you’re likely eating more calories than your body needs, and these
calories may be stored as fat. Click here for more tips on emotional
overeating (or binge eating) and
managing emotions without food.
2. Chose smart, and portion it out.
Unfortunately, in the late hours of the night (or the wee hours of
the morning), you are often at the mercy of vending machines or
24-hour convenience store snacks. Nothing else is available!!! Many
(but not all) of these snacks are high in fat, sugar, and calories;
and munching on them all night can often contribute to weight gain.
Instead, think meal foods rather than snack foods. Your late night
eating should be more like a “midnight mini meal” (with a definite
start and finish), rather than an endless eating frenzy. Click here
for specific ideas for
midnight mini meals and snack attacks.
Another benefit of meal foods vs. traditional snack foods is that
they tend to have some protein in them. Protein is much more
satiating (or filling) than sugary or starchy foods; so you’ll be
less likely to raid the kitchen or vending machine again an hour
after eating them. Protein also does a better job of keeping you
more alert, which makes it an ideal choice for late night study
If you decide to munch on more traditional snack foods, there are
many lower fat, lower calorie snack options available (see the
“snack attack” link above). Whether or not you choose these lower
fat choices, always remember to portion out your snack foods. Place
one handful of chips on a paper plate, one serving of grapes in a
coffee mug, or 2-3 cookies on a napkin. And, eat your snack slowly
and in full awareness. If you mindlessly snack directly from the bag
or box, you’re much more likely to eat more than you otherwise
Eating Out - So Little Control Over Choices and Portions
When you eat out, you often lose control over what is available, how
food is prepared, and how much is served. Even if there are
“healthy” choices, it’s often hard to select them because the other
choices look and taste soooooo much better! To avoid over-indulging
and take charge of the situation, keep the following tips in mind.
1. Choose restaurants that offer healthy faire, and avoid
all-you-can eat places (if possible).
2. Avoid arriving ravenously hungry.
If you are at a holiday party, everything will look so good, and you
are more likely to over-stuff your plate and overeat. If you are at
a restaurant, you will likely over-indulge in appetizers while you
wait for your meal to come. Instead of falling prey to these
situations, make sure you have a light snack before you go (e.g. a
piece of fruit, a small carton of yogurt, a small handful of nuts, a
string cheese, etc.).
3. Cruise through the cafeteria or buffet line and peruse the
restaurant menu carefully before making any selections.
Look for key words on menu items that indicate lower fat
preparation methods. And click here for a
Food Guide of what to
choose vs. what to limit.
Think about what your REALLY want and then balance your choices.
There’s no need to forbid yourself from eating your favorite foods
at your favorite restaurants. This is especially true if eating out
is a rare treat for you. Besides, if you don’t let yourself eat what
you REALLY want, you’ll leave feeling deprived and unsatisfied and
you may overeat later. If you really want to have a rich dessert
(which is loaded with carbohydrates and fat), balance it out by
ordering an entrée of lean protein and vegetables (like a grilled
chicken salad with light dressing or a piece of grilled fish with
steamed vegetables). If you really want a high fat burger, skip the
greasy fries and enjoy some carrot sticks or fresh fruit with it
instead. Balance is key!
4. Ask questions, and request modifications or substitutions.
Ask the waiter or server how items are prepared or served (i.e.
Are the vegetables buttered? If so, can I get them steamed?)
Request toast and baked potatoes “dry” or with spreads and
toppings on the side.
Ask for seasoned vinegar, lemon, salsa, plain nonfat yogurt, or
low cal salad dressings.
Ask them to “hold the mayo” and to put sauces, salad dressings,
and other high fat extras “on the side.” If you choose to use them,
apply sparingly or dip your fork in the dressing/sauce to get a tiny
flavor boost with each bite.
Ask for a side green salad, steamed vegetable, or fruit cup in
place of the cole slaw, potato salad, or fries that normally comes
5. Ask for smaller portions, or take steps to control portions on
Ask the server to give you smaller portions (e.g. 1 scoop vs. 2
scoops of rice; a small order of fries vs. the medium or large that
usually comes with the “value meal”).
Request a doggie bag immediately when your food arrives, and put
half away before you start eating. Similarly, when you’re eating at
home, put leftovers away before you start eating.
Ask the waiter to remove your plate as soon as you feel full to
prevent picking at it.
If the basket of bread or tortilla chips on the table is a
problem, have it removed or placed out of your reach.
Share a large entree or dessert with someone.
Eat slowly, put your fork down between bites and chew well.
Drink a tall glass of water before you start eating and/or several
glasses during your meal.
6. Maintain perspective.
Overeating one day at one meal won't make or break your eating plan.
And it certainly won't make you gain weight! It takes days and days
of overeating to gain weight. If you over-indulge at an occasional
restaurant meal, holiday, or social event, put it behind you. Return
to your usual eating plan the next day without guilt or despair.
However, if you eat out most days of the week or have a very active
social calendar (with lots of food-centered parties and gatherings),
you’ll need to be more diligent about implementing these tips.
Cafeterias, food courts, coffee shops, and restaurants are not only
places to eat, but they are places to hang out and socialize. Even
when you’ve had enough to eat, it may be tough to just sit around a
table and just talk, without picking at the remaining food or going
back for seconds and thirds in all-you-can-eat settings. Sometimes
just being with certain people can be a cue to eat. Below are some
tips to prevent overeating in these social situations:
1. Take deliberate steps to end your meal.
Brush your teeth, suck on a mint, chew gum, or drink a tall glass of
water to cue yourself that the meal is over.
2. When you’re done, get up and remove your plate, your tray, or
If you’re at the cafeteria or food court, remove your tray and then
return to your table with a glass of water to sip on while the
socializing continues. If you’re at a restaurant, ask the waiter to
remove your plate promptly or give you a doggie bag. If you’re at a
party, position yourself away from the food as soon as you’re done
3. Create alternative activities.
Suggest to your eating buddies a new social activity or study break
idea, like going for a “walk-and-talk,” shooting some hoops, or
Alcohol contains calories—and lots of them! Drinking also triggers
eating cues, regardless of whether you’re hungry. And since your
judgment is impaired and foods that are served with alcohol are
usually not the most nutritious, your food choices while “under the
influence” are often not the best. Click here for more info about
alcohol and how to drink safely and sensibly.
Food often serves many other functions besides just satisfying
hunger. Food may be used to celebrate, to relax, to cope with
stress, depression, loneliness, or boredom, and to procrastinate
from studying. All of us occasionally eat when we’re not physically
hungry. That’s normal. But failure to manage non-hunger eating most
of the time can lead to significant weight gain, emotional distress,
and poor health. To prevent these problems, keep these tips in mind:
1. Become aware of non-hunger cues that motivate you to eat.
When the cue hits, delay eating for at least 10 minutes and
distance yourself from food. This will give you time to determine
what’s really going on and whether you really want to eat (i.e. Are
you really hungry? If not, what do you really need right now? Will
food satisfy your need? If not, what could you do instead?).
If you still want to eat after that period of time, decide how you
will handle the situation. For instance, set out a realistic portion
of food (such as a coffee mug full of pretzels instead of an entire
box of cookies or crackers). Sit down at a table, and eat the food
without distraction and without guilt. Enjoy it.
2. Have low calorie munchies on hand.
Examples: baby carrots, air popped popcorn, fresh fruit or
vegetables, frozen fruit bars, fudgsicles. Check out the handout on
“Snack Attacks” for more tips on low fat munchies.
These foods may help manage non-hunger eating. But, keep in mind
that all foods have calories and regularly indulging in lower
calorie choices will still add up.
3. If you’re having a specific craving, identify what you really
want and go get it.
Low calorie munchies are great to have on hand. But, if you’re
really craving chocolate, then baby carrots most likely won’t
satisfy you. In fact, you’ll probably wind up eating the entire bag
of baby carrots plus some rice cakes and some fruit and still find
yourself getting chocolate after all that! You’ll save a lot of
time, anguish, and calories, if you just identify what you really,
REALLY want and go out and enjoy one small serving.
The key is portion control. If you keep an entire box of cookies
or pint of ice cream on hand, it might be too easy to overindulge
when a craving strikes. If this is the case, it might be better NOT
to keep these foods on hand, but to go out to 31 flavors for one
scoop of ice cream or Mrs. Fields for one cookie when a craving
If portion control is not a problem for you, you might try keeping
a bag of Hershey kisses or mini candy bars in your room and eat one
daily to satisfy your sweet tooth.
4. Create a list of at least 3 things you can do instead of eating
when your non-hunger eating cue strikes (whether it be feeling
bored, stressed, tired, lonely, or sad).
• Some possibilities for the list are reading a favorite magazine,
calling or emailing a friend, surfing the internet, taking a shower,
painting your nails, doing a crossword puzzle, or playing a computer
5. Click here for more tips on
managing emotions without food.
While some students eat more when they are under extreme emotional
distress, others tend to eat less. Following a rigid, restrictive
diet may serve as a coping mechanism when life feels out-of-control
and overwhelming, or it may offer false hope for improved self
esteem for people who believe that they would be so much happier if
they could just be thinner or more muscular. Alternately,
restrictive eating may simply be a consequence of the loss of
appetite that commonly accompanies anxiety or depression. To prevent
the negative effects of restrictive eating, click here for more tips
managing emotions without food.
Sheri Barke, MPH, RD
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center