You’ve graduated high school and you’re off to college! Believe me when I say from the bottom of my heart, congratulations. You’ve worked hard for it. And it’s one of the most exciting times of your life. You have the college experience to look forward to, and the rest of your life in front of you.
But for many, that also means being on your own and making your decisions solely for yourself for the first time, and adapting to a complete change in lifestyle. Between the stress and the new academic workload schedule, so many college freshman gain excess weight their first year. To help balance out your new-found freedoms and increased obligations, here are a few tips to keep yourself healthy and happy through the college years (and beyond!):
Eat regular meals
We all know that eating more vegetables and fruits (and fewer manufactured foods) with proper portioning are the keys to a healthy diet. But believe it or not, erratic eating habits can negatively affect you, too!
Eating inconsistent meals can really confuse your body and even convinces your body that you are in a famine. What that means is that your body starts to conserve energy, and yes, hold onto fat and sugar stores to carry you through the “lean” times to come. So eating three squares at regular times during the day can keep your body happy, and not feel threatened. Most importantly, though, is breakfast! Although you may be tempted, do not skip it. Not only does eating breakfast help fuel your body and brain for the onslaught of information to come your way that day, but it reduces your risk of overeating at lunchtime because you are starving. You feel the need to make up for the missed meal and eat more than normal. Also, don’t eat big meals late at night before going to bed. It’s best to eat light at night or between meals, which brings me to my next topic.
I get it. You’ve got three classes back-to-back, and you ate breakfast at 6:30 a.m. this morning. You’re hungry! But keep on walking past those vending machines full of candy bars and potato chips. Always keep some healthy snacks with you, like fruits (bananas are portable and not messy) and vegetables (what’s more fun than eating a bunch of baby carrots?), trail mix (sugar in the dried fruit and protein and fat in the nuts keep you fuller longer), cheese or a yogurt. Your body will thank you later.
You probably have already written off this article as soon as you saw this bolded subheading. But hear me out! Caffeine artificially increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and can interfere with calcium uptake and lead to weak bones/osteoporosis. It is also a natural diuretic, and therefore can lead to dehydration. This website gives you a good visual explanation of other physical ramifications of excess caffeine consumption.
Caffeine is also hard on the adrenal glands, which will force them to release constant stress hormones and keeps the body in a state of high alert and stress. It can also affect your digestive system and reduce uptake of essential nutrients from the food you eat.
Up to one or two 5 oz. caffeinated beverages (or 200 mg of caffeine) are considered the most anyone should drink in a day. Here is a list of beverages and caffeine levels of each. It might even be better to think twice before grabbing that second cup of coffee or soda for the day.
Drink more water
Now that we’ve eliminated caffeine, you can walk straight past the Monster drinks and Red Bulls, too. These not only add WAY too much sugar to your diet, but it is very corrosive to your insides. Drinking water helps your brain think clearer, and keeps your body working in a harmonious way. Putting energy drinks into your body, between the excess sugar and caffeine, can do so much damage especially to your heart. According to a recent report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, emergency room visits due to energy drink consumption has DOUBLED since 2007, totaling an average of 20,000 visits in 2011. That is so crazy!
Also soft drinks can add excess sugar to your diet than you could honestly burn off in a day. And diet sugarless sodas with artificial sweeteners are even worse for you. When your tongue tastes the sweetness and doesn’t get the expected delivery of sugar, the body begins to doubt itself. It would usually send out enzymes to break down and use the sugar, but can be conditioned not to with these artificial sweeteners. That is one reason why the body ends up having a difficult time managing sugars when it gets the real deal – and can therefore lead to weight gain, depression, and even diabetes. Learn more here.
If you still need a little incentive to drink more water, vitamin waters are a great alternative. Or try putting in pieces of fruit like berries, melons, or even herbs to flavor your water bottle. Check out this website for more ideas on making your own “vitamin water.”
Lower your stress load
When you are in a state of stress (the “fight or flight” response we have evolved to experience when facing a predator), all body systems except for the very essentials are shut down or minimized. But this state is not meant to last for long – only until you have averted the perceived danger. If you drink too much caffeine, don’t sleep adequately, and are constantly worrying about your next test or paper, you are putting heavy burdens on your body for long stretches at a time that is not natural. This can reduce your body’s ability to fight off infections or viruses, and you can gain weight because your cells are not using the fuel correctly.
How do you combat stress? Yoga, tai chi, meditation/deep breathing, or simply blowing off steam with friends at the end of a day and laughing can all help release pent up stress.
Limit the alcohol
Even if you are in college before 21, let’s face it: Alcohol is easily attainable. So be warned that besides being a “social lubricant,” it’s also very heavy on carbohydrates, which is what leads to weight gain. Keep your consumption down to one alcoholic drink a day for women, and two for men. Or, stay off the sauce and hit the books! Your mom and dad will be proud.
Make time for exercise
You’re in classes most of the day. You then sit at a computer to research, do papers, or complete assignments. You then might have a job that sucks up a lot of time outside of school. But nothing is more important than fitting in a little exercise. Try parking your car further out from your next class so you get a good brisk walk in. Take stairs instead of elevators. Do some stretches if you’re waiting between classes or take a stroll around campus. Get a bike or roller blades to help you not only get you to your next class or the library a little quicker, but will also use some of your muscles and help you get in some aerobic exercise. While your grades are important, your health is also a priority. And keeping in physical shape is a great way to keep your brain in shape, too!
Get enough sleep
This may seem obvious, but I cannot express enough to you how important it is to get adequate rest. Pulling frequent all-nighters to get papers done or studying for tests not only hurts you in the long run in academic performance due to constant brain fog, but it keeps your body in a state of stress. Remaining in a stressful state messes with your hormones, your immune system (you could get sick often) and your blood sugar levels. Hence, why it is so easy to gain weight when your body’s systems are all over the place, not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And if you’re drinking energy drinks and a lot of caffeine, they contribute to an extremely poor quality sleep – if you can get to sleep at all! Alcohol is also known to get in the way of quality deep sleep, preventing you from getting the restful kind of sleep that allows you to feel refreshed to start another day of classes.
One way to get better sleep is to train yourself to go to bed at the same time every night. If you need to, do some meditating or quiet breathing to help clear your head if you have a busy mind. Even exercising during the day can help your body sleep better. Stay off your phones, computer and away from the television at least an hour or two before bed, because they, too, can interfere with your sleep cycle.
Isn’t college even more exciting now that you have these fantastic goals in mind for a healthy two to four years? Good luck in your journey, and be well!