Eating well affects our physical and mental health as well as our well-being and mood. It is helpful to distinguish between a healthy diet and diet culture. Having a healthy diet is eating food without feeling stress, stigma, or shame. It means nourishing yourself using your body’s inner wisdom to achieve health at any size (HAES). Diet culture equates thinness to virtue and obsessing over weight and the impossible “ideal”. This way of thinking is bound up with ideas about appearance, weight, and activity levels.
Developing healthy eating habits doesn’t require you to sign up for a health-food diet or lifestyle: you don’t have to become vegan, gluten-free, “paleo,” or go on regular juice fasts. The way to create a healthy eating style is by learning to make food choices that you can enjoy, one small step at a time. See the ChooseMyPlate website for more guidelines. Additionally, the current United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans “MyPlate” graphic replaced the old “food pyramid” and allows for different dietary patterns and cultural cuisines. These guides influence the Standard American Diet (SAD), which promotes health and prevents chronic diseases. In the ninth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, there are special considerations for life stage, including persons who are lactating or pregnant and older adults.
USDA Healthy Eating Guidelines
Make half your plate fruits and vegetables: Focus on whole fruits and vary your veggies
- Choose whole fruits—fresh, frozen, dried, or canned in 100% juice.
- Enjoy fruit with meals, as snacks, or for a dessert.
- Try adding fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables to salads, side dishes, and recipes.
- Choose a variety of colorful veggies prepared in healthful ways: steamed, sautéed, roasted, or raw.
Make half your grains whole grains
- Look for whole grains listed first or second on the ingredients list—try oatmeal, popcorn, whole-grain bread, and brown rice.
- Look for enriched refined grain choices.
- Limit refined grain desserts and snacks such as cakes, cookies, and pastries.
Vary your protein routine
- Mix up your protein foods to include a variety—seafood, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, soy products, eggs, and lean meats and poultry.
- Try main dishes made with beans and seafood, like tuna salad or bean chili.
- Limit red and processed meats.
Move to low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt
- Choose fat-free milk, yogurt, and soy beverages (soy milk) to cut back on your saturated fat.
- Replace sour cream, cream, and regular cheese in recipes and dishes with low-fat yogurt, milk, and cheese.
Drink and eat less sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars
- Eating fewer calories from foods high in saturated fat and added sugars can help you manage your calories and prevent obesity. Most of us eat too many foods that are high in saturated fat and added sugar.
- Eating foods with less sodium can reduce your risk of high blood pressure.
- Use the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list to compare foods and drinks. Limit items high in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars.
- Use vegetable oils instead of butter and choose oil-based sauces and dips instead of those with butter, cream, or cheese.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks, including energy and sports drinks.
- Reduce alcoholic beverages.
Eat the right amount
- Eat the right amount of calories for you based on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level.
- Building a healthier eating style can help you reduce your risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Cornell University found that the average adult eats 92% of whatever they put on their plate. One of the challenges is that portion sizes have drastically increased over the last 50 years. Another reason for poor health is the rise of ultra-processed foods that are associated with gaining weight, chronic disease, and higher mortality.
Following the dietary guidelines requires personal responsibility as well as societal changes. Dietary misinformation, lack of nutrition education, food and nutrition insecurity, food apartheid, targeted marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, and sustainability are important health considerations. For example, the FDA’s definitions of “healthy” and “natural” need clarity.
The prevalence of food allergies and sensitivities are on the rise. When you have allergies, intolerances, or other dietary restrictions, you need to adjust meals for alternative diets. This includes mild to severe allergies, intolerances, celiac diseases, and/or dietary restrictions motivated by religion, health, or ethics.
College Food Insecurity
There is a rise of food insecurity among college students trying to eat balanced meals. The Hungry to Learn (2019) documentary shows that a staggering 45% of college students are struggling with hunger. Hunger impacts academic performance, sleep quality, and college success. Beyond accessibility, availability, and affordability, the insufficient financial aid, high college costs, and budget cuts has increased the rate of food insecurity among college students. College students may be eligible for food assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), campus food pantry, emergency assistance funds, garden program, and farmers market–based food boxes. Leanne Brown published a cookbook, Good and Cheap (2017), for people with limited income, particularly on a $4/day food stamps budget. The PDF is free. Also, Bueno y Barato (2017) is available in Spanish.
Eating disorders can develop, return, or worsen during the college years. There is a continuum of eating disorders from anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder to disordered eating. They are a serious mental illness that can affect all people, but treatable. When there is a pattern or preoccupation with missing meals, saving calories, and using appetite suppressants, speak to a counselor about your relationship to food.
Body positivity rejects that weight, body size or body mass index is a proxy for health. Weight and size are prescribed by beauty standards, which can lead to fat-shaming and stigma. Social media such as Instagram, manipulated with filters, play a role in influencing body image. Finding body acceptance means focusing on your health, not your looks.
Healthy Eating in College
College offers many temptations for students trying to create or maintain healthy eating habits. You may be on your own for the first time, and you’re free to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Cafeterias, all-you-can-eat dining facilities, vending machines, and easy access to food twenty-four hours a day make it tempting to overeat or choose foods loaded with calories, saturated fat, sugar, and salt. You may not be in the habit of shopping or cooking for yourself yet, and, when you find yourself short on time or money, it may seem easier to fuel yourself on sugary, caffeinated drinks and meals at the nearest fast-food place. Also, maybe you played basketball or volleyball in high school, but now you don’t seem to be getting much exercise.
On top of that, it’s common for people to overeat (or not eat enough) when they feel anxious, lonely, sad, stressed, or bored, and college students are no exception. It’s incredibly important, though, to develop healthy ways of coping and relaxing that don’t involve reaching for food, drink, or other substances. It’s also important to eat regular healthy meals to keep up your energy.
Activity: Assess Your Snacking Habits
- Recognize the challenges to eat well in a college setting
- Keep a daily snack journal for one week: Write down the types and amounts of snack foods and beverages you consume between meals each day. Record the time of day and note where you eat/drink each item.
- At the end of the week, review your journal. What snacks or drinks did you have? Are there any patterns? Are there times of the day when you’re especially prone to choosing snacks/drinks? What affect did you notice on your alertness, reaction time, memory, concentration, mood, energy, and overall well-being? Are there particular places where you tend to reach for junk food? What were the best healthy snacks and how did you prepare them?
- In a short, reflective essay (1–2 pages long), describe what you observed about your snacking habits during the week (“you can’t eat just one”). Identify any habits you’d like to change and explain why. Describe several strategies you could use to break bad habits and replace them with healthier snacks as well as be more active. Explain why you think these strategies will be effective.
- Follow your instructor’s instructions for submitting assignments.
Licenses and Attributions
CC licensed content, Original:
- Nutrition. Provided by: Lumen Learning. Located at: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-collegesuccess-lumen1/chapter/nutrition/ License: CC BY: Attribution
Content previously copyrighted, published in Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skills and Time Management Strategies (by Dave Dillon), now licensed as CC BY
CC licensed content, Shared previously.
- Planning a Diet. Provided by: Pierce College. Located at: https://courses.candelalearning.com/nutritionxmaster/chapter/planning-a-diet-content-needed-ryan/. License: CC BY: Attribution
Public domain content:
- MyPlate, MyWins. Provided by: USDA. Located at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/myplate-mywins. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright
Adaptions: Removed images, video, relocated learning objectives, removed KidsHealthorg. paragraph and footnote.