There are many benefits associated with keeping a healthy diet. We know most of them without looking it up, right?
Most people know that eating well is one of the key factors in weight loss. Weight loss, in turn, lowers your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other health problems. The list goes on. Eating a healthy, well balanced diet decreases your risk of certain cancers, high blood pressure and stroke, and low bone density.
It’s not just about the side effects we can avoid, it also has tremendous benefit to our everyday lives. Healthy eating improves our mood, our memory, our gut health and our sleep. Add to that, one more really great benefit, it sets us up to pass on good health habits to the next generation.
I mentioned memory, but that’s not the only way our brain is affected by the food we eat.
Harvard recently published an article on the effects certain foods have on our brain function. Their list included green leafy vegetables, fatty fish and berries, among others. As an added benefit, many of the good “brain foods” also protect your heart and blood vessels.
In 2018, the University of Virginia researched the connection between nutrition and learning in school children. They found that children who were not only fed, but were filled with the nutrition their bodies needed, were more able to focus, and less likely to be disruptive in the classroom.
Brain function and mental alertness – they’re all affected by what we eat.
4 BENEFITS TO EATING HEALTHY IN COLLEGE
Here are four main reasons why I believe it is important to eat healthy in college.
1. WEIGHT MANAGEMENT
There are a number of things that happen when you start your first year of college that contribute to this notorious weight gain.
First, if you live on campus, you have a dining hall with endless unhealthy food choices at any time of day (and night?).
Second, your sleep patterns are disrupted. Irregular and inadequate sleep significantly contribute to weight gain.
Third, STRESS. Going away to college and leaving your family, learning to be responsible for your own schedule and finances, and increased academic load are all brand new stressors. Higher stress levels can also cause your body to store extra fat.
Weight gain can be a major physical and mental health concern. Those who are overweight or obese have higher incidences of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety and decreased self-esteem.
The next three benefits will show you how healthy eating can combat all of the triggers for college weight gain, but the most important thing to remember is that good nutrition is the number one tool to managing your weight.
You may have heard phrases like, “you are what you eat,” or “you can’t out train poor nutrition.” Both of those statements are true. If the food you put into your body is lacking vitamins and nutrients that your body desperately needs, and instead filling you with sugar and trans fats, there is no amount of exercise that will help you stay thin.
If you have already gained some extra weight, do not fret. It’s not too late to make some changes and turn your nutrition around. For more information on losing those pesky pounds, read my post How to Lose the Freshman 15.
It’s no surprise that college students often do not get enough sleep. Lack of quality sleep contributes to many health issues both short- and long-term. Weight gain is a short-term effect, in that you can see the effect quickly, and it can be reversed later with proper nutrition and sleep. Other effects of poor sleep include forgetfulness, lack of focus, depression and/or anxiety and poor academic performance.
Healthy eating habits are key to good sleep. High levels of sugar and saturated fat during the day has been linked to lighter and less restful sleep at night, while healthier foods, such as fatty fish, chamomile tea, walnuts and almonds, turkey, and foods that are higher in fiber will contribute to healthier sleep.
3. MENTAL HEALTH
Are you noticing how it all ties together? Healthy food fuels the body. It is your source of energy. It also fuels the brain. Your brain uses energy differently than your body, but it still requires a steady energy source. In the same way that you cannot go run a mile when you are starving, your brain can’t do all the wonderful things it is meant to do without all those vitamins and nutrients.
A poor diet – high in processed meats, sweet desserts, refined cereals and high fat dairy products- has been linked to higher incidence of depression and other mood disorders.
Many of those same foods may also increase anxiety and lower your ability to process and deal with stress.
On the other hand, fruits and vegetables and other plant based foods improve your mood, contribute to lower stress levels and decrease anxiety.
Poor sleep, as I mentioned, may be caused by poor diet, which in turn can cause depression and anxiety.
4. ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE
In a recent article, The Mayo Clinic shared that eating certain foods and avoiding others could slow brain aging and lessen the chances of developing Alzheimer’s. While Alzheimer’s won’t directly affect your academics, this does speak to the effect of good food and your memory. If there is ever a time in life that you need your memory to be at the top of it’s game, I am pretty sure that time is college.
Good food provides the necessary energy that your brain needs for mental focus and alertness. High levels of sugar will give you a short-term spike in energy that may make you feel more efficient and focused, but it is followed by a crash, where you feel sluggish and often excessively sleepy.
One other result of a healthy diet that doesn’t get enough credit is faster information processing. Have you ever been in class and
no matter how hard you try to pay attention and follow along, your professor seems to be speaking another language? This is a sure sign of slow information processing and it is likely that your breakfast that day was higher in sugar or trans fat and lacking fruit, vegetables and protein.
Healthful eating is never just about weight loss. It is about your overall health in every part of your life. If it was just about looking good, we would all give up when we didn’t fit into the “right size” pants. No, it is even more about feeling good; getting enough sleep, stable moods, lower stress, higher energy, better mental focus and faster information processing.
TIPS FOR HEALTHY EATING IN COLLEGE
As I said before, the life of a college student includes many factors contributing to poor diet. If you live in a dorm room, you may not have easy access to a kitchen, so cooking your own food is much more difficult.
The prevalence of unhealthy food options makes it far more challenging to make the healthy choices. The dining hall is convenient, and has a buffet (open nearly any time) filled with soft serve ice cream machines and so many dessert options.
If you’re trying to keep your expenses low, it’s easy (and cheap) to grab highly processed foods, like ramen packets and easy mac, and pop them in that dorm room microwave.
All that aside, there are many ways to intentionally make healthy choices.
FIRST, I know I said you can’t out train poor nutrition, and you can’t, but exercise does have it’s health benefits.
Paired with good food it can be a wonderful tool for weight loss, mood improvement and overall health. Exercise helps you sleep better too. Look for physical activities on campus. Bonus points if they are social as well. Join a recreational volleyball team, or swim laps with friends.
SECOND, pay attention to the color of your foods, and I don’t mean food dyes.
Fruits and vegetables that are rich in color are also typically rich in essential vitamins and nutrients. For example, red foods are rich in antioxidants, orange foods boost your immune system, and green foods build healthy cells, including brain cells. Try to fill your plate with more colorful fruits and vegetables, and less processed foods and grains. In general, I recommend sticking with non-starchy vegetables as much as you can. Here’s a list to see which veggies count as non-starchy.
THIRD, make a meal plan.
The number one way to derail healthy eating is to not have a plan. When hunger strikes and you have no idea what you have to eat, it’s easier to grab fast food, after all, fast food is on nearly every corner and on nearly every college campus in the United States. On a free day, sit down with a pen and paper or a meal planning app, and write down all of the food options you want to include in your week. Then list those out in a plan for each day so that when you are hungry, you can look at the plan you already made and choose a healthy option from your list. This is especially useful if you at least have a refrigerator in your dorm room to store fresh fruits and vegetables that you can have as snacks between meals. It may also help to make a list of dining hall meals that fit your healthier eating plan.
A number of my other blog posts can help here- including:
Also, don’t wait until you are hungry to get food. Have a plan for when you need to eat your next meal, and have something ready to eat at that time. Allowing yourself to get overly hungry will make it much harder to make the healthy choice.
If you are eating out, try these low carb options to keep you full & satisfied – and have lots of energy for class or a night of studying.
For added support check out my signature program BEST BODY.