Nutrition

Photo of a college cafeteria. Students push lunch trays past a pile of Doritos and pizza.

Just imagine, how much easier our lives would be if we were born with a “user guide or owner’s manual” which could tell us what to eat and how to live healthy.

―Erika M. Szabo, author

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define healthy eating habits
  • Identify techniques for making healthy food choices, especially in college

Healthy Diets

A diet is anything that you consume on a regular basis. If you drink Diet Coke for breakfast every day, that’s part of your diet. When people talk about “going on a diet,” they usually mean changing their existing dietary habits in order to lose weight or change their body shape. All people are on a diet because everyone eats! Having a healthy diet means making food choices that contribute to short- and long-term health. It means getting the right amounts of nutrient-rich foods and avoiding foods that contain excessive amounts of less healthy foods. The right mix can help you be healthier now and in the future.

Developing eating healthy eating habits doesn’t require you to sign up for a gimmicky health-food diet or lifestyle: you don’t have to become vegan, gluten-free, “paleo,” or go on regular juice fasts. The simplest way to create a healthy eating style is by learning to make wise food choices that you can enjoy, one small step at a time. The key is choosing a variety of foods and beverages from each food group (vegetables, fruits, grains, protein foods, and dairy)—and making sure that each choice is limited in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars.[1] The following current USDA Healthy Eating Guidelines replace the old “food pyramid.”

USDA Healthy Eating Guidelines

Infographic showing a picture of a plate divided into four segments: One segment is labeled "Fruits," one is labeled "Grains," one is labeled "Protein," and the last is labeled "Vegetables." Next to the plate is a circle (suggesting a cup or glass) that's labeled "Dairy."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.
  • Limit 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.

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 overweight and 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.

Eat the right amount

  • Eat the right amount of calories for you based on your age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level. Visit the USDA SuperTracker, which can help you plan, analyze, and track your diet and physical activity.
  • Building a healthier eating style can help you avoid overweight and obesity and reduce your risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

The following short video recaps the USDA’s current healthy eating guidelines:

Healthy Eating in College

Woman sitting in a campus dining hall, holding a bottle of waterCollege 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, 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.

Kidshealth.org offers the following advice on ways for college students to adopt a healthy food attitude:[2]

  • 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

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.


  1. "MyPlate." Choose. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
  2. "Beating the Freshman 15." Kidshealth.org. Web. 3 Mar 2016.