Every future college student has heard of the infamous “Freshman 15.” Some call it a myth, while others claim it as a very true reality. The Freshman 15 refers to the sudden weight gain many students seem to accumulate when they start their first year of college. From not exercising as regularly as in high school to no longer being able to eat healthier home-cooked meals, it isn’t hard for students to put on a few pounds, especially in the first few months as they adapt to new routines. Dining halls at universities around the country don’t always make keeping the weight off easy either. Overeating is a major consideration for why so many students experience a sudden weight gain with late-night dinners and endless burgers and fries at their fingertips.
Many students also don’t know where to find nutrition information for food, which makes it harder to be aware of the calorie count or recommended serving size before grabbing their meals. From my own experience, I’ve learned in order to eat moderate portions in the dining hall, it’s vital to make sure I know what’s in the meal before I purchase it.
Read the label
When looking at nutrition labels, it’s important to look at all the different sections of the label, such as calories, serving size, ingredients, and the amounts of fats, sugars and carbohydrates.
Calorie counts are the most common thing to look at when viewing nutrition labels. According to most nutritionists, a fairly active person should eat no more than 2,000 calories a day, which is the basis for nutrition labels. Health.gov writes that most foods with over 400 calories per serving is high. The website has many tips for reading nutrition labels, including the amount of trans and saturated fats as well as added sugars you should have in a healthy diet.
You should also note the list of ingredients. One thing to remember is nutrition labels always have the ingredients in order of most used to least, so if there’s an unhealthy ingredient (e.g., sugar or high fructose corn syrup) in the top few, you may want to reconsider how much of it you eat.
Nutrition labels are one of the most important things a student should look at before choosing what they eat in the dining halls. In recent years, the FDA has been instating regulations to make nutrition information more widely available, but it can still be difficult to find information if you don’t know where to look.
Nutrition information is available online for most universities, but in a rush, students may not care to spend time to look up this information before grabbing something to eat. To save time, I’ve learned to keep the nutrition page open in my internet tabs for easy access. It’s also great because I have the cafeteria menu with me each day, so I can decide where and what to eat ahead of time.
Know your portions
It can be easy to overeat in dining halls because of the portions. Whether your school offers à la carte or buffet dining options, it can be hard to eat the correct serving size. At my university, we have both options available to students.
In our à la carte–style dining hall, students are often served large portions for meals and huge pieces of dessert, which can be over 1,000 calories per serving. These big portions of food can be a huge culprit of weight gain when eating on a meal plan, especially if you take more than one plate per visit. Remember that you don’t need to eat all the food that is given to you if you don’t want it—this isn’t your house where you can’t leave the table until you finish everything on your plate.
At buffet-style dining halls, students often load up on food. Our dining halls have a specific set of rules, so students sometimes eat as much as they can because we’re not allowed to bring food out of the hall. Because buffets are serve yourself, students can easily double or triple their portions of French fries, chicken nuggets, and desserts. Just be aware of how much food you’re taking, and learn how big one serving size really is to avoid overeating.
Related: 10 Daily Actions to Foster a Healthy Lifestyle in College
Be responsible for your eating habits
Each person’s body type and their lifestyle, calorie count, and nutrition intake are different. Some people need more or less than the recommended 2,000 calories a day. TheScienceofEating.com offers a calorie grid to determine roughly how many calories you should eat in order to maintain a healthy weight, as well as information on how to create a healthy diet. Your university health services office is another great resource to help you maintain a healthy diet, as they often have information on how to stay healthy on campus. Some offices may even be able to arrange meetings with a nutritionist for students.
While dining halls make it tempting to indulge in large slices of cake and greasy pizza, it certainly isn’t impossible to eat healthy. Dining halls offer a range of foods for their students to receive the proper nutrition; it’s simply up to the student to make sure they choose the right food and portions for their body. Being smart in the dining hall includes learning to limit yourself to only one or two plates and making sure you have a balance of fruit and vegetables along with the main entrée. Apps such as MyFittnessPal, FitBit, or the health app on your iPhone are great ways to keep track of consumption and exercise habits too.
Related: Avoiding the Freshman 15
Know your alternatives
Staying healthy while using the meal plan is a skill many students struggle with when heading off to college. It’s important to recognize what amount of food is appropriate for your lifestyle and to learn how to balance what’s on your plate. Remember to look at nutrition labels and make smart choices with what you eat. Staying healthy during college isn’t difficult if you make yourself aware of what you’re eating and how much of it you have.
Universities have a lot of information regarding dining halls on their website and are usually accommodating to every dietary restriction possible, making alternative foods easily accessible to students. And don’t be afraid to ask for smaller portion sizes if you feel they are too large. University workers care for students and are usually happy to accommodate. One last tip: save food for a later meal. If portions look like a lot, set part of it aside as leftovers.