College makes the most bizarre behaviors – keg stands, theme parties, and trekking home from the library at 3AM – seem totally normal. That is, until you're back at home over break and someone invariably points out how strangely you're acting. Nobody can fault you for indulging in your favorite junk foods every once in awhile, but when your midnight snack of Hot Pockets and sugary cereal becomes routine, it's time to take a look at how out of whack your eating patterns have become. Whether you're skipping breakfast in order to shave a few minutes off your morning routine or subsisting solely on coffee to get you through hours of back-to-back classes, it's important to learn how to nix these bad habits for good.
Her Campus consulted Connie Diekman, Registered Dietitian, past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis for the 411 on healthy eating in college.
Why do eating patterns change once you start college?
No more Mom and Dad
When Her Campus polled collegiettes last year about what they missed the most about high school, the top answer was a no-brainer: home-cooked meals! Even if your parents weren't exactly gourmet chefs, you were probably accustomed to a regular assortment of meals you knew and loved, typically served around the same time each night.
But once you got to college, all bets were off. Even if your dining hall is amazing, it's nothing like what you're used to at home. You probably have access to an endless amount of food, so it can be tough to control your portion sizes. If your dining hall is buffet-style, you're likely to pile more on your plate than you would if you were cooking your own meals. And depending on your dining hall's hours, you might be forced to eat when you aren't hungry (hello, dining halls where dinner closes at 7).
At home, Mom and Dad probably footed the grocery bill and paid the bill at restaurants. In college, it's harder to pay for your own food supply – that is, if you can even get to the grocery store on a regular basis – so it's easy to fall back on eating the leftover bag of Cheetos in your dorm room.
Your schedule has changed
Eating was easy in high school: breakfast before school, lunch in between classes, a snack after school, and dinner with your family later at night. But college throws that schedule for a loop. You might not need to wake up for class until 11AM, or you might be running from class to your work-study job all day long. Maybe you're pulling all-nighters in the library or grazing on snacks in the dining hall every hour.
One of the most common eating issues in college is waking up right before class starts, leaving no time for a filling breakfast. You've heard it a million times before, but it's well worth repeating again. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Diekman suggests yogurt and fruit or cereal with milk. A breakfast packed with protein and fiber helps you power through the morning and will keep you fuller for longer. Try egg and cheese on an English muffin or oatmeal and a banana with peanut butter.
Another common issue in college is being busy all day. Class, hanging out with friends, studying, club meetings, work-study jobs, and internships don't leave a ton of downtime to catch a meal!
While taking 20 credits and working 20 hours a week, FIT collegiette Shaye's appetite disappeared. “I was so busy that I forgot to eat and wasn't even hungry. I was so busy that my body just adjusted to missing meals throughout the day.”
According to Diekman, the key to surviving long, busy days is sticking to a schedule. Every three to four hours, pencil in a snack or small meal. Try preparing healthy, on-the-go snacks on the weekends so you can stash a few in your bag throughout the week. With a little planning ahead, you won't be tempted to dash into the dining hall for a bagel on the way to your next class. Diekman suggests choosing a combination of carbs and protein every time you eat, such as:
- A peanut butter sandwich
- Oatmeal made with milk
- Fruit with peanut butter
- Cheese and crackers
- Hummus on pita bread
- A LUNA bar (or another brand with a 2:1 carb to protein ratio)
- Homemade trail mix: 1 cup whole grain cereal, ½ cup dried fruit, ¼ cup nuts
Keep in mind that eating on a regular schedule throughout the day helps prevent bingeing on heavy meals when you finally do have the time to eat!
What are the consequences of abnormal eating patterns?
In some cases, strange eating habits are relatively harmless. You might gain or lose a little weight or feel tired, sluggish, or stressed. But if you let your eating patterns slide too far from what you're used to, you might end up getting sick or get severely overweight or underweight.
Avianne, a student at NYU, says, “Last semester, I had a very busy schedule between a full class load and four part-time jobs. Working from early morning to late nights, I often prioritized the work I needed to get done rather than eating. I often would rush in the morning to classes, only eating a granola bar on the bus. Lunch would probably be my only consistent meal every day, and I often skipped dinner or just grabbed something fast though not exactly nutritious, so I could spend more time on homework and whatnot. Some days, I felt like I was very drained of energy, and I ended up having to see a gastroenterologist after my stomach started having problems from my diet inconsistencies. The days I didn't get as much food sometimes led me to take caffeine for quick energy, but overtime, that fatigued me even more, and I eventually got sick.”
After a semester of struggling with a healthy eating schedule, Avianne is now actively focused on getting back to her status quo. “I am currently trying to get back on a better eating schedule, although I have noticed that my appetite is no longer as big as it used to be when I ate more consistently. I really think that healthy eating is important... it's something I wish I didn't overlook or feel like I had to sacrifice for a busy schedule!” she says.
How should you be eating?
“I recommend students eat within one hour of getting up – no matter what time that is – and then eat every three to four hours from that point on,” Diekman says. “This routine allows for flexibility of schedules and focuses on keeping the body fueled without being tied to breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
But between hours of studying and lots of social time, sometimes your last meal or snack might fall several hours after you finish dinner. If that's the case, don't stress! Eating late at night sometimes gets a bad reputation, but Diekman encourages it as long as you stick to healthy choices.
“Fueling the body every three to four hours should continue until you go to bed, but they key is keeping the right food choices in that plan – and the right portions. When you eat chips, ice cream, pizza, fried foods, or alcohol late at night, you aren't focused on health,” she says.
Aside from your typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner, collegiettes often end up eating a fourth meal in college: late-night drunk food. Check out these tips on how to curb drunchies.
Whether you're eating after a late night in the library or a late night on Frat Row, stick to healthy snacks like fruit, veggies, oatmeal, eggs, lean meats (like turkey), and Greek yogurt.
For girls ages 19 – 30, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends a daily caloric intake of 1,800 – 2,400 calories, depending on how active you are. (You can check your personalized nutritional recommendations at ChooseMyPlate.gov.) The USDA suggests eating from all food groups, with a focus on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Are your eating patterns safe?
The transition to college can completely throw your eating out of whack. Even if you've never struggled with eating before, some collegiettes develop eating disorders in college from stress, lifestyle changes, new pressures, and being surrounded by new people. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and extreme calorie counting can all threaten your physical and emotional health and it's important to recognize when you might need help.
If you're seriously struggling with disordered eating or have gained or lost a significant amount of weight, Her Campus urges you to contact your campus health center or make a toll-free call to the National Eating Disorder Association's Help Line at 1-800-931-2337.
How can you fix your unhealthy eating patterns?
Stick to a schedule
Aim to follow Diekman's golden rule: breakfast within the first hour you're up, followed by meals every three to four hours. Take a look at your class schedule and other commitments and pencil meals and snacks into your calendar or planner. Once you're aware of when you should be eating, it's easier to control your hunger and make healthy choices.
If you have plans to meet up with a friend for dinner at 6:00 PM, you're not going to binge on snacks at 5:30. The more regularly-timed meals you share with others, the easier it is to follow a healthy schedule.
Make breakfast a priority
Kema, a collegiette from Harvard, used to struggle with skipping breakfast until she made a conscious effort to keep her eating schedule on track. “I always wake up early to get breakfast, even if my first class isn't until the afternoon. I noticed on days that I would miss breakfast, I would eat a ton of unhealthy snacks for the rest of the day, and I didn't want that to become a pattern.”
Even if your first class isn't until noon, do yourself a favor and try following Kema's example. You don't need to get up at the crack of dawn, but eating breakfast at the same time every day before class will prevent you from bingeing later on.
Give yourself extra time in the morning
We hate to break it to you, but it's probably not possible to fit a substantial breakfast between your 9:15 AM alarm and your 9:30 AM class. Fortunately, breakfast doesn't take very long. Setting your alarm even ten or fifteen minutes earlier might be all the extra time you need to squeeze in a solid start to your day.
Georgia, a student at the University of Maryland, is a night owl who tends to skip breakfast. “I'm more productive late at night, so I prefer to work later and wake up later. Because of this, I leave myself no time to eat breakfast in the morning, even though I know I should. I usually buy a coffee to drink during my first class and might not get to eat again until dinner,” she says. “I'm working on trying to get up half an hour earlier.”
If you’re still pressed for time in the morning, you can try stocking up on easy, on-the-go breakfasts like fruit and yogurt so that you can just grab them on your way out the door. Or, you can try preparing your breakfast the night before and storing it in the fridge to cut down on prep time.
Don't tempt yourself
If you know you aren't able to resist unhealthy foods, avoid keeping them in your dorm room. Instead, fill your food stash with healthy options so that making a good choice will be easy and convenient, and you won’t drunkenly polish off an entire family-size bag of chips. Harper, a collegiette at the College of William & Mary, is a self-proclaimed late-night snacker who's working to reform her bad habit. “Recently, I've been throwing out my junk food. Instead of eating chocolates, I eat boiled eggs and pepperoni. I find the protein really filling. Keeping the offending snacks out of stock is an easy way to stay on track,” she says.
Harper knows what she's talking about – after cutting out soda for a year, she was able to lose ten pounds.
It's never too late to correct an unhealthy eating pattern. Good luck!