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 money’s worth.
  • 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 following:

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 realizing it. 

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 breakfast.
  • Try not to schedule too many classes back-to-back so you have time for lunch.
  • 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 day.
  • 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 more fat.
    • Faster metabolism.
    • Better mood.
    • Better portion control. (You’ll be less likely to overeat due to over-hungriness.)
  • 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 enough!
  • 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 whole day.

To avoid the pitfalls of late night snacking, keep these tips in mind…

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 sessions.

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 would.

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 with it.
5. Ask for smaller portions, or take steps to control portions on your own.
  • 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.

Recreational Eating
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 yourself. 
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 eating.

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 playing cards.

Social Drinking
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. 

Emotional Eating 
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 strikes.
  • 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 game.

5. Click here for more tips on managing emotions without food.

Emotional Not-Eating
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 on managing emotions without food.

Sheri Barke, MPH, RD 
COC, Student Health & Wellness Center
Rev. 2005