Fitness and Nutrition in College

Updated April 27, 2023 | Staff Writers

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Students Fitness and Nutrition in College

I remember those days of eating biscuits and gravy with my buddies in the college cafeteria. We arrived for breakfast at 11:00 AM after we pulled an all-nighter playing Warcraft II, fueled for world domination with snacking and drinking loads of Mountain Dew. We crashed for three hours before arriving for our “breakfast.” For a young man arriving in an environment of freedom, this was a big change. I had a food card, which meant I could essentially have the choice and quantity I felt like without seeing the cost or calories. This deadly combination of factors wreaked havoc on my friends and I, all of us gaining the dreaded “Freshmen 15” we heard so much about. I didn’t experience all bad weight gain as my voracious appetite was partly the result of being a college athlete, but others weren’t so fortunate. The resulting health devastation this played on many peers and classmates is well documented. What causes the health and fitness problems in college? Why does it matter and why should a young man or woman care? Lastly, what are some ways to overcome these challenges to lead to a more healthy and happy lifestyle in an out of college?

Know the Enemy! Problems College Students Face

Sun TZU, in the Art of War said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Taken analogously, the enemy is the forces of sickness, weakness, and disease. To defeat the enemy requires knowledge of the monster of ill-health and knowledge of self. Let’s first examine the problems college students face, then we’ll offer some tips and suggestions to “know the enemy and know yourself” as Sun Tzu has taught us: to defeat illness, weakness, and disease.

Our fast-paced on-the-go culture has fostered a multitude of health problems. Stress, poor sleep, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle wreak absolute mayhem on our bodies leading to chronic problems of just about every sort.

(S)Stress + (PS)Poor Sleep + (SL)Sedentary Lifestyle = (HW)Health Wreckage

It is not just weight gain that the problem is, it is all the debilitating conditions that sap the happiness out of the room. From birth to death the health problems in America are a constant battle, but for many, the habits of defeat that lay the groundwork for illness, chronic conditions, and disease are established in the formative college years.

Knowledge is Power: From the Experts

An article by The Huffington Post, “Nutrition in College: Answers by the Experts” discusses the problems:

  • “There’s a huge adjustment that takes place when students leave home and come to college,” added Dr. Rebecca Corwin, an associate professor of nutritional sciences and neuroscience. “It’s a very stressful and vulnerable time.”
  • “When transitioning into college, students have free rein over everything they eat,” said Registered Dietitian Melissa Hendricks. “They might not have been able to eat pizza two meals a day before, and now pizza is readily available all day long. It’s that free rein that can be difficult for students.’
  • According to Penn State nutrition instructor, Dr. Alison Borkowska, overwhelming schedules can be a major reason for students’ bad eating habits. “They’re encountering levels of stress and scheduling that they’ve never experienced before,” she said. “They’ve never had this many things to be responsible for, including putting food in their mouths.”

Statistics from the Presidents Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition also help highlight the problems we all face, in particular college students:

  • Nearly one-third of high school students play video or computer games for 3 or more hours on an average school day.
  • Only one in three children are physically active every day.
  • Less than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day; only one in three adults receive the recommended amount of physical activity each week.
  • Food available for consumption increased in all major food categories from 1970 to 2008. Average daily calories per person in the marketplace increased approximately 600 calories.
  • Since the 1970s, the number of fast food restaurants has more than doubled.
  • Empty calories from added sugars and solid fats contribute to 40% of total daily calories for 2–18 year olds and half of these empty calories come from six sources: soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk.
  • Recent reports project that by 2030, half of all adults (115 million adults) in the United States will be obese.

These statistics and our socio-economic issues are highlighted in the outstanding documentary Food, Inc. It is clear we have some big problems in our country, and the solution ultimately lies within each of us. Our choices and our habits make a huge difference not only in our lives but in our neighbors and even in giant corporations. Don’t believe me? Just watch Food, Inc.

Know Thyself: Changes (and Battles) to Expect

Reasons vary for all the problems college students face, extending back to habits learned in childhood. In short, the transition to college is rough and big changes in schedule, sleep, diet, exercise, social life, financial responsibility, and overall lifestyle play a starring role.

It is not uncommon for college students to stay up way too late, get up and go to class, nap in the library, go to class, eat, class, snack, class, snack, sleep, eat, stay up really late eating munchies and playing pool, and starting the vicious cycle all over again….for four years!

Changes in Sleep

Facts are facts, and the University of Georgia, Student Affairs, Health Services has found that “College students, like Americans overall, are sleeping less, and if you are like most college students, chances are you are not getting enough sleep. On average, most college students get 6 - 6.9 hours of sleep per night, and the college years are notoriously sleep-deprived due to an overload of activities. Recent research on college students and sleep indicates that insufficient sleep impacts our health, our moods, our GPA and our safety. Sleep really matters.”

The University of Michigan, Division of Student Affairs also highlights the problems specifically related to college students:

  • College students are one of the most sleep-deprived populations.
  • Research at Brown University has found that approximately 11% of students report good sleep, while 73% report sleep problems.
  • 18% of college men and 30% of college women report having suffered from insomnia in the past 3 months.
  • Sleep deprivation in students has been linked to lower GPA’s because sleep affects concentration, memory and the ability to learn.
  • Research has shown that lack of sleep leads to insulin sensitivity which can lead to increased cravings for high-calorie foods.  This is especially important information for students who are taking psychiatric medications that may increase appetite or those who have a medical condition such as diabetes. 
  • Click on Link for Sleep Tips -

Changes in Finances

  • Changes in lifestyle include money. Budgeting is a learned habit and skill. If students were not taught when growing up, odds are college could be a school of hard knocks in the area of spending and budgeting.
  • Total Outstanding U.S. Consumer Debt: $3.4 trillion, and college students are included in this shocking number. Students burdened by debt have increased stress, and sometimes even have to drop out due to debt overload.

Changes in Schedule

  • Classes and social activities can make it difficult to have regular meal times. Coupled with the ease and choice at college cafeterias, the average college student eats bad food on the go. This stress-eating has been linked to bad sleep, weight gain, and digestive problems.
  • According to the Undergraduate Research Journal for the Human Sciences:
  • In fact, one study that evaluated the cardiovascular health needs of college students found that nearly 60 percent of the students rated their stress levels as high or very high. (Nguyen-Michel, Unger, Hamilton, & Spruijt-Metz, 2006).
  • When one is chronically stressed, the stress hormone cortisol is released, which causes some individuals to excessively eat (Torres & Nowson, 2007). Adams and Epel (2007) found that people who identify themselves as eating more under stress had higher urinary cortisol and insulin when they were stressed out.

Changes in snacking/alcohol/social time

  • Snacking, especially beverage consumption outside of a regular meal, continues to increase among Americans, accounting for more than 25 percent of calorie intake each day, according to research presented at the 2011 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo®.
  • Between 1977 and 2006, snacking in the American diet has grown to constitute "a full eating event," or a fourth meal, averaging about 580 calories each day, said Richard D. Mattes, Ph.D., professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University.
  • The amount of secondary eating and drinking – consumption while engaged in another activity – has also increased.  Between 2006 and 2008, time spent eating primary meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – remained consistent at 70 minutes. However, secondary eating doubled from 15 minutes each day in 2006 to nearly 30 minutes in 2008, and secondary drinking jumped nearly 90 percent from 45 to 85 minutes.
  • While snacking has increased in general, "there has been a significant increase in the amount of calories consumed through beverages," said Mattes.  Today, beverages account for 50 percent the calories consumed through snacking.

Facts from the Institute of Food Technologists, “Snacking Constitutes 25 Percent of American Diet.”

  • “Recent data shows how many calories Americans are getting from snacks,” she continued. “We eat about four to five times a day, and we’re seeing that snacks are providing as many calories as breakfast. A study done at Purdue University shows that with this amount of snacking we are basically eating another meal. Over the years portion sizes have gotten bigger, and that means more calories.”

Weapons to be Victorious

Being as college life is a huge change in many core activities of life, those without principles, or the changeless set of ideas or actions the guide living, may find themselves beset by many problems. All of us ought to think through what our principles are. In fact, the key to mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and social success depends entirely on principle and practices; in other words, the changeless core of ideas or beliefs guiding one’s life and the habits one has that lead to or away from happiness.

“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”

--- Leonardo da Vinci

“He who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”

--- G.K. Chesterton

“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor ... If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”

--- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“People can't live with change if there's not a changeless core inside them.”

--- Steven Covey

Destroy the False Gods

“Our culture has enthroned a few gods that promise to always deliver. The gods of cheaper, faster, and bigger make up the trinity of our consumer culture and inundate the ad and sound-bite society around us. If a product is bigger, cheaper, and can give us our desire faster, it is automatically better. Tear down this altar to the consumer gods and decide what kind of health you want.”

Cheaper isn’t always better.

  • This particular idea crumbles under the smallest scrutiny. When we need our car repaired, computer fixed, or body healed, is the cheapest option best? Heavens no! The old adage, “You get what you pay for” is true. This is certainly the case with food, and food, being the primary source of nutrients, energy, and health, it is vital that we understand this. Midnight runs to Wendy’s that are all about the $.99 menu and the four burgers and giant soda will certainly “fill me up.” Fill up indeed - with carbs, sugar, chemicals and all the processed stuff our bodies don’t want. Check out the tips below to choose the healthy choice in the cafeteria or the get the most out of you dollar when shopping.

Bigger isn’t always better.

  • This lie comes in every fast food meal. Supersized pop, fries, and burgers is a billion dollar industry, so if we think we understand bigger is better, we better think twice. When buying food, the quantity should be secondary to the quality. Every health coach and expert around says this. Getting quality calories over lots of empty carbs is key to maintain or restore health. “We want it and we want it now” is a mantra of the age. Research has shown that the changes in lifestyle in college are at the heart of the health problems. Just as anytime in life, college is busy. Activities fill up every day and into the night causing stress, anxiety, and cravings for comfort. The fast-paced life we live leads to demand for fast food. Eating on the run is stressful, we chew less, making digestion more difficult. Preferred foods that are fast are foods that satisfy quickly and taste good – this means a lot of carbs and starches to the neglect of fruits and vegetables. To take down this god will be the hardest for college students, but for the stouthearted, check out the tips below for healthy snacking.

Build Good Principles and Practices as a Sure Defense

Hippocrates said “Good health begins and ends in the gut.” Did you know that the small intestine is the main filter of the body? It is where 60-80 percent of the immune system’s activities occurs! When we eat bad food in big quantities and on the run, combined with unhealthy snacking, late night drinking, and bad sleep we simply tax our system to the point that sickness, fatigue, weight gain, disease, and weakness win. If health is the goal, we have to practice the principles we choose to live by.

Snack Right!

  1. Snack on Apples and Peanut Butter – A healthy and delicious snack with excellent nutritional value, is fast, and easy.
  2. Get Hooked on Tree Nuts – These little guys have huge health benefits. From good fat, protein, and vital nutrients, grab a bag of almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, or walnuts. There are tons of snack pack creamed nuts out on the market, but out of shell or shelled are great options. You can also combine nuts (as a protein) with good carbs and energy like dried plums. Put some in your car and back pack. They last a long time, are fast, easy, and delicious.
  3. Don’t give up chips and carbs but limit them and stay vigilant! – I love chips and snacking on them feels so good. Studies have shown though, chips and snacks like it, can be addictive and actually lead to fatigue and other health problems. Instead of giving up these delicious guys, have less and add a protein (like nuts).
  4. Ditch the soda – My advice is find a different yummy drink that is healthier. You don’t have to be crunch and go for the kombucha drink, but steer clear of sugary drinks that are addictive and unhealthy. There are many studies (and common experiences) that demonstrate the health detriment soda can do. Again, if you love it so much you can’t get rid of it, have WAY less and make your staple snack drink something other than soda.
  5. Dried fruit and veggies. Believe it or not, there are some incredible tasting dried fruits and veggies. Prunes aren’t just for older people trying to stay regular. They are excellent for energy and are sweet. For the health nut, kale chips are the rave in super foods right now. Dried apricots are great for iron. Find one you like and notice how much these great snacks helps.
  6. String cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese are great choices for protein, but for women, remembering these may be even more important for calcium. These are some great tips to start. Find stuff you like and enjoy the adventure of finding foods that make you look and feel great.
  7. Eggs and jerky will pump you up. Eggs used to be on the bad list, but now, health experts tout the great protein, good fat, and overall benefits of eggs. Jerky is one of my favorite snacks because its meat of course, but more than that, I’m getting good protein, able to enjoy the flavor, and the satiety seems to last longer than other snacks.

The Institute of Food Technologists reports that “Global consumers spent $374 billion on snack foods annually between 2013 and 2014, a year-over-year increase of 2%, according to a new global report released by Nielsen.”

Don’t get me wrong, snacking is not the enemy. In fact, some studies show that good snacking, that is, quality food, moderate quantity, and at the right time, actually can become a tool to lose weight and gain vitality. For more conversation on snacking check out these articles:

  • Peanut butter and snacking
  • Snacking can decrease appetite at regular meals, thus help control weight gain.
  • “What Science Says About Snacking”
  • “Positive Effects of a Healthy Snack Versus and Unhealthy One”

Choose to Be Active as a Lifestyle

Let’s face it, running for 20 minutes on a treadmill is not everyone’s cup of tea. Exercise can be a drag – changing into workout clothes, going to the gym, getting sweaty, showering…before you know it, 20 minutes of hell on a bike going nowhere ends up being one hour. Is there a better way?

Common sense dictates (in addition to countless studies) that to be healthy includes exercise; however, exercise isn’t just the 20 minutes of hell on a bike going nowhere. Choose to make healthy habits of being active. Make it a lifestyle, something normally done with friends, this way it is long a burden and inconvenience. This is the key, make it a habit not a fad burst of intense yoga for a week.

The simplest physical activity to increase in college is walking. Choose to walk everywhere (or bike). This activity helps aid in dealing with stress, digestion, and overall mental health. Again, it’s not rocket science and making it habitual is the key.

You don’t have to be an athlete for all intramurals. Find something you like, grab some friends, make a team create some funny t-shirts and have fun.

Choose active social outings. Go walk around a park, toss a Frisbee, or go on a hike. A leisurely hike is good for the soul and great for friendship. In fact, take a picnic, and go swimming in a creek if you can. If intramurals or hiking doesn’t work, get some people together for beach volleyball or a beach day in general. Perhaps Ultimate Frisbee would work.

There are some incredible fitness centers on our college campuses. These offer state of the art exercise equipment, activities, classes, and spaces. Take advantage of all the money spent to attend a college and use their awesome facilities to stay health, have fun, and even improve academics.

Let’s face it, when faced with working out alone (riding that bike that goes nowhere) most of us lack the will power. Know thyself and go to a fitness class where being with others can help motivate you to be active.

So good, so easy, so healthy! I used to think yoga was a “girl-thing”. I was completely wrong. Depending on the kind of yoga, it can be very challenging and demanding. If getting in strange positions in front of others or with others in a gym or social setting doesn’t work, try it in the dorm room alone or with a best friend.

CHAARG(Changing Health, Attitudes + Actions to Recreate Girls) aims to ignite a passion in college-aged girls for health and fitness. The goal of CHAARG is to liberate girls from the elliptical and show them that fitness can be fun. Since every girl has a different preference of what fun is, CHAARG creates opportunities for girls to “find their fit.” They partner with local studios once a week to lead a workout, whether it be CrossFit, Pure Barre, or salsa dancing — and everything in between. Once a girl joins CHAARG, she is welcomed into a supportive and empowering community of 5,000+ girls! CHAARG combines good friends and a good workout. The program is currently at 37 universities and there is a “Virtual Chapter” for girls who do not have a CHAARG Chapter at their university yet.

Make Sleep a Priority

It cannot be underestimated. The more it is studied, the greater importance is given to sleep. Physical, emotional, and social well-being, and of course tests scores, grades, learning, focus and attention, all depend on good sleep. Good sleep is also connected with diet, and exercise. Listing of the benefits of sleep ought to convince anyone to strengthen their will and choose sleep. The problem in college is sleep seems to be in competition with late night friends and fun. Choosing sleep doesn’t have to mean being a bump-on-a-log; make some sacrifices, be wise, and follow these tips.

The average adult needs six to eight hours a night. Knowing yourself and what you absolutely need is utmost in importance. Most adults need at least six hours regularly. They can go one or two nights with less, but consistently cutting into that affects the quality of life too much for comfort.

You don’t have to give ‘em up completely. Late nights can be where memories are made and friendships are forged. On the other hand, the enemy of health loves the late night, especially if it’s preventing quality zzz’s. Know yourself, know your limits, and give up a late night or two.

Not having a regular schedule can really make sleeping difficult. College schedules are part of the problem. The more regular schedule, generally, the more regular and quality sleep. Set a schedule the old-fashioned way. Get out some parchment, a bottle of ink and pen, and write one out. Definitely include a few late nights (know yourself though!) and even schedule in “unscheduled” times for creativity and spontaneity.

Nutrition and sleep are two peas in a pod. The choices made in diet greatly affect sleep. Caffeine, sugary drinks, carbs, and unhealthy foods simply make getting quality zzz’s less likely. According to research (especially applicable to college students) late night drinking and eating can affect the quality of sleep as well as irregular eating patterns and unhealthy foods.

It cannot be said enough that diet, sleep, and exercise are intricately related. For me, if I have afternoon caffeine past 4:00 pm, I have trouble getting to sleep. If I have too much chocolate or sugar before bed, my sleep suffers. It took me a long time to figure it out…and some chronic health issues first.

Advice from the Experts:

Check out more data on sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.

  • Research shows that all mammals need sleep, and that sleep regulates mood and is related to learning and memory functions. Not only will getting your zzzs help you perform on a test, learn a new skill or help you stay on task, but it may also be a critical factor in your health, weight and energy level.
  • Sleep deprivation may also inhibit one’s ability to lose weight – even while exercising and eating well! A 1999 study at the University of Chicago showed that restricting sleep to just 4 hours per night for a week brought healthy young adults to the point that some had the glucose and insulin characteristics of diabetics. 
  • Lack of sleep creates a vicious cycle – the more tired you are, the more caffeine you’ll consume to stay awake during the day; but the more caffeine you consume, the harder it’ll be to fall asleep at night.
  • Food is also related to sleep by appetite and metabolism. Research by Dr. Van Cauter shows that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have bigger appetites due to the fact that their leptin levels (leptin is an appetite regulating hormone) fall, promoting appetite increase.

Learn to Cook Without a Kitchen

  1. Without a doubt, tip #1 is acquiring a mini-fridge and microwave. These come in super handy for storing healthy snacks, and though cheaper and faster isn’t always better, it often times can be! In addition to mini-fridge and microwave, consider acquiring the following:
  • Small cutting board
  • Paring knife
  • Paper plates/bowls
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic silverware
  • Mugs/cups
  • Microwavable bowls

2. Stored Goods - Try these and find what works best – Organic and natural is always better, but stick to a budget!

  • Peanut butter
  • Nutella (for a treat that’s not terribly unhealthy)
  • Healthy crackers
  • Granola
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Granola and protein bars
  • Fruit with long shelf life – apples and oranges
  • Veggie chips/Kale chips

3. Feed the Fridge- try these and what works best.

  • String cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Baby carrots, snap peas, veggies you can snack on
  • Hummus
  • Lunch meat
  • Milk
  • Applesauce
  • Low fat condiments

4. Resources for Dorm Room Cooking

  • Dorm Room Recipes
  • All Women’s Talk Dorm Room Recipes
  • Healthy Dorm Room Recipes
  • College Express Easy Dorm Room Recipes
  • Muscle and Fitness Easy Dorm Room Recipes
  • Undressed Skeleton Dorm Room Recipes
  • Eating Healthy in Collegev
  • Rice Cooker Recipes
  • One Good Thing by Jillee Dorm Recipes
  • Vegan Dorm Room Recipes

5. Check out the community kitchen. If possible, these come equipped with basic and useful (though limited) cooking potential. For example, many community kitchens have toasters, toaster ovens, George Foreman grills, microwaves, fridges, and possibly even an oven.

Utilize Outside Resources

On-Campus Help

  • Fitness Centers – Most college campuses have outstanding fitness centers. Complete with weights, ellipticals, treadmills, fitness courts, gyms, and swimming pools, there is no shortage of equipment to use for physical activity.
  • Health Center – On-campus health centers can provide help and guidance for students who struggle with eating disorders or overeating and weight management issues. Some centers also provide help for students who have health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and food allergies.
  • Athletic Trainers – Check to see if the university’s Athletic Trainers are willing to work with students. Some will help students with a training plan or act as a personal trainer for an affordable price. The extra accountability of a trainer may help you stay on track with your fitness goals.
  • Campus Nurse – For those who are looking for a free way to get some help with health and nutrition, the Campus Nurse can often be a good option. Most campuses have nurses available for consultation free of charge. Schedule an appointment and talk to the nurse about your health.

Online Help

Students today have more resources available than ever before. There are numerous apps and programs available free online to help track calories consumed and calories expended. The internet is full of nutrition advice, goal-setting apps, workout videos, fitness groups and more. Here are some valuable websites with everything from nutrition advice, workouts, calorie counters, and more.

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