Healthy Eating in College

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify challenges for making healthy food choices in college and techniques to overcome these barriers
Woman sitting in a campus dining hall

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. 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, or stressed, 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. offers the following advice on ways for college students to adopt a healthy food attitude:[1]

  • avoid eating when stressed, while studying, or while watching TV
  • eat slowly
  • eat at regular times and try not to skip meals
  • keep between-meal and late-night snacking to a minimum
  • choose a mix of nutritious foods
  • pick lower-fat options when you can, such as low-fat milk instead of whole milk or light salad dressing instead of full-fat dressing
  • watch the size of your portions
  • resist going back for additional servings
  • steer clear of vending machines and fast food
  • keep healthy snacks like fruit and vegetables on hand in your room
  • replace empty-calorie soft drinks with water or skim milk

Another hurdle to healthy eating for many college students is food insecurity, which is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.[2] Research conducted before COVID-19 illustrated high rates of food insecurity amongst college students that likely increased during the pandemic and will continue to present problems as people return to college and countries deal with economic recovery.[3] Food insecurity can affect students’ grades as well as their physical and mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and threatens to widen the educational gap. Research has shown that students of color, students who were receiving multiple forms of financial aid, or those who were experiencing housing problems were more likely to be food insecure or at risk of food insecurity.[4] Community college students, financially independent students, Pell Grant recipients, and student parents are all more likely than their peers to experience basic needs insecurity.[5]

The USDA provides tips on how to eat healthy on a budget, which involves making a plan to stay organized and save money, getting the most for your dollar, and tricks on making healthier meals to fit your schedule. The USDA also provides tips on eating right when money’s tight as well as governmental and local food assistance programs, which include the following:

Students can also check if their college has a food pantry or stigma-free food access options on campus as well as mutual aid networks in their communities.

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food insecurity: limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain access to acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways


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  1. "Beating the Freshman 15." 3 Mar 2016.
  2. "Food security in the U.S." U.S. Department of Agriculture, Accessed July 23, 2021.
  3. Laska, M. N., S. Fleischhacker, C. Petsoulis, M. Bruening, and M. J. Stebleton. "Addressing College Food Insecurity: An Assessment of Federal Legislation Before and During Coronavirus Disease-2019." Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2020, vol. 52(10), pp. 982–987.
  4. Payne-Sturges, D. C., A. Tjaden, K. M. Caldeira, K. B. Vincent, and A. M. Arria. (2018). "Student Hunger on Campus: Food Insecurity among College Students and Implications for Academic Institutions." American Journal of Health Promotion, 2018, vol. 32(2), pp. 349–354.
  5. Dennon, A. "COVID-19 Worsens Food Insecurity among College Students." Best Colleges, 9 Mar. 2021,