by Shaun Hurdelbrink and Natasha Cole, MPH, RD
Before college, eating healthy and staying physically active was a straightforward, stable routine for me. Cereal in the morning, PB&J for lunch, cross-country or swimming as exercise, then a well-balanced dinner made by mom or dad. College, however, was a whole new lifestyle and it became challenging to eat the healthy foods I wanted to and stay active. Many college students tend to face similar situations and gain weight over the course of their first few years on campus. According to NRC Research Press, “about 70% [of 131 college students studied] gained weight, averaging 11.7 ± 9.1 lbs.”1 Despite the great variation in the study’s results, there was nonetheless an upward trend in bodyweight and BMI throughout college students.
However, there are several effective and useful strategies that have helped me improve my eating habits, stay active, and save time and money in college. In terms of eating habits, breakfast is a good place to start in making healthful changes since this can greatly influence eating patterns throughout the day. In fact, missing breakfast altogether is likely “to increase the temptation … for an unhealthy snack and to overeat in general.”2 Therefore, breakfast can truly make a big difference in overall health.
1. One excellent breakfast option: Oatmeal
Have you ever had a bowl of cereal with milk and felt hungry again an hour later? According to a study conducted by Trout et al., a cornflake or bran based cereal with milk is less satiating than a bowl of rolled oats.3 Here are some additional reasons to consider making the switch to oatmeal in the morning:
• Oats are easy!
Cooking half a cup of rolled oats only takes about two minutes in the microwave and adding a banana and/or tablespoon of peanut butter makes a healthy breakfast that will hold off hunger until lunchtime.
• Oats are heart-healthy!
Oats are high in fiber with about 4 grams per serving, which is more than the 1 gram found in cornflakes. More importantly, the fiber found in oatmeal is essential for gastrointestinal health, stabilizing blood sugar levels, lowering cholesterol, and maintaining a healthy weight.4 In addition, plain oatmeal has no added sugars as well.
• Oats can multi-task!
If you’re a coffee drinker, making coffee in the morning or waiting in line to buy a cup can add additional time to a routine. My solution: add a spoon or two of instant coffee to your morning oatmeal. Not only does the oatmeal obtain a pleasant coffee flavor, but you’ll have your “cup of Joe” at the same time and no additional dishes or hassle.
• Oats save money!
A 10-lb box of old fashioned oats costs about $10 and has over 100 servings. That’s a mere $0.09 per bowl of oatmeal if prepared with water. On the other hand, a 24 ounce box of cornflakes or bran-based cereal costs about $3.50 and has 24 servings (about $0.15 each serving). If you like cereal with milk, that’s an additional $0.40 – $0.80 per bowl. Not only are oats cheaper and more filling, but if you’re willing to try oats with instant coffee then imagine the additional savings from the daily coffee shop visit too!
2. Be Active
Exercise is one of the best activities to improve overall health as it naturally relieves stress, increases longevity, and makes you feel more energetic throughout the day.5 At first, developing a daily routine of exercise can be challenging in college, but it is doable. Here are some tips to help get you started:
• Make the time
Find time in at least a few days of your weekly schedule, ranging from 20 minutes to an hour and mark them in your calendar. Treat the time in which you exercise as a reprieve from college life. Exercising with this mentality should be enjoyable and not burdensome.
• Strength train
Set aside each day to a specific group of muscles (i.e. arms, legs, cardio, etc.). Most importantly, if you’re dreading a specific body group, start with an exercise that you truly enjoy, then ease into the body part you had planned to work on for that day.
• Squeeze in daily activities
If you’re typing a paper, doing homework, or just feeling overwhelmed, do some push-ups, sit-ups, or squats to channel that emotional energy into something that is good for your body. Instead of taking the bus to class, walk or ride your bike. As silly as it may sound, these small bursts of activity will release endorphins and help you feel refreshed and focused.5
My hope is that some of these tips will provide insight to easy and healthful options in college. By no means is this comprehensive advice, or a cure-all to physical and mental health, but it is a small, helpful step in a largely positive direction.
1Gropper, S. S., Simmons, K. P., Connell, L. J., & Ulrich, P. V. (2012). Changes in body weight, composition, and shape: A 4-year study of college students. Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism, 37, 1120-1121. Retrieved from EBSCO Host database.
2Breaking the fast: The timing and the contents of breakfast make it perhaps the most important meal of the day. (2011). Harvard Health Letter, 36(8), 1-2. Retrieved from EBSCO Host database.
3Trout, D. L., Hallfrisch, J., & Behall, K. M. (2004). Atypically high insulin responses to some foods relate to sugars and satiety. International Journal of Food Sciences & Nutrition, 55, 580. Retrieved from EBSCO Host database.
4Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012, November 17). Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet. Retrieved March 5, 2015, from Mayo Clinic website: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983
5Physical activity reduces stress. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from Anxiety and Depression Association of America website: http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/other-related-conditions/stress/physical-activity-reduces-st