How to Craft A Healthy Meal at Your Dining Hall

Adapting to college life isn't easy. You're making new friends, attending classes, and doing everything on your own for the first time in your life. That includes eating three square meals a day, and in a college dining hall, it's easy to get lost in the endless food options.

Navigating your cafeteria at a college or university can be tricky: It's up to you, and you alone, to determine what to eat and what to avoid. Here are some tips to navigate your school's dining hall, and stay healthy in the process.

1. Eat a variety of foods.

It's essential that you're getting a variety of nutrients on a daily basis: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and low-fat dairy products.

According to the Harvard University School of Public Health, a “healthy eating plate” consists of roughly 25 percent of whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, or brown rice; 25 percent lean proteins such as fish, chicken, nuts, and beans; and the remaining 50 percent vegetables and fruits. (Click here to see Harvard’s version of MyPlate, which aims to revise that of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, go for a colorful plate to yield more vitamins and nutrients. Harvard recommends limiting refined grains like white bread and white rice. Whole grains are better for you because they digest slower, whereas refined grains raise your blood sugar and quickly make you hungry again, says Lilian Cheung, lecturer and director of health promotion and communication at Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition.

Limiting red meats like bacon and steak is also a good idea, Cheung says, since they increase the risk of heart disease, colon cancer, and diabetes.

Make sure you're also consuming dairy products for calcium, which helps build bones and teeth, and vitamin D to build and maintain bones, according to the USDA. Dairy also provides potassium, which is important to upholding healthy blood pressure.

2. Eat what you want in moderation.

If you decide to indulge in something on the unhealthier side every once in a while — a dessert, for instance, or a fried food — that’s okay, Cheung says, so long as you keep it to a smaller portion.

“This is where [students] should be aware and eat mindfully,” Cheung says. “They should be conscious of the fact that they want it, and they want to enjoy it and take small bites.”

3. Don't skip breakfast

Eating breakfast provides your body with energy that allows you to maintain a good blood sugar level, Cheung says.

“If you just wake up and go to class and don’t eat, by noon you’ll be so famished that you’ll just grab whatever you see, even if it’s not the healthiest choice,” Cheung says.

A Harvard School of Public Health study offers further evidence that eating breakfast has its benefits, finding that men who skipped out on the first meal of the day were at a 27 percent higher risk of getting coronary heart disease than those who ate breakfast. They were also hungrier later in the day, contributing to more eating at night, which could lead to changes in metabolism, the study says.

4. Limit your sugar intake.

Sugars are often added to foods and beverages to make them sweeter. These added sugars contrast with the natural sugars found in fruits, which are digested slower, said Joy Dubost, a nutritionist, food scientist, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dieteticsm. Fruits, in contrast to candies and desserts, tend to have less sugar by volume while also providing vitamins, antioxidants, and water.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine this year revealed that participants who consumed sugar as 25 percent or more of their daily calories were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who consumed less than 10 percent.

According to the USDA, when so many of your calories comes from added sugars, it might be difficult to incorporate fiber and the necessary vitamins into your diet while staying under your daily calorie limit, which is usually around 2,000, though it varies. Sugar contains “empty calories,” meaning it’s included in your total calories but doesn’t provide any vitamins or minerals.

The USDA has stated that the major sources of added sugars are soda, energy drinks, grain-based desserts, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, dairy-based desserts, and candy.

Cheung says to be careful when considering sodas or drinks such as iced tea because the amount of sugar listed on the label is usually for one serving — only a fraction of the whole bottle.

“It’s not that easy for the person to figure out how much sugar there actually is,” she says.

5. Drink plenty of water.

To stay hydrated, plain water is always a great choice, Cheung says, while you should avoid consistently choosing sodas and other high-calorie drinks. You could also add a slice of lemon to water for some flavor, for example.

And, Cheung says that unless you are exercising very frequently, stay away from sports drinks such as Gatorade, which is high in sugar and sodium.

Sources:

10 Healthy Eating Tips for the Busy College Student. (2014). Retrieved September 18, 2014, from Clarke University

A Guide to Eating Healthy On-Campus. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2014, from Colby College

Cahill, L., Chiuve, S., Mekary, R., Jensen, M., Flint, A., Hu, F., & Rimm, E. (2013). Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male U.S. Health Professionals. Circulation, 128(4), 342-342. Retrieved September 26, 2014, from Ciruclation

Dairy: Health Benefits and Nutrients. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2014, from Choose My Plate

Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid. (2011). Retrieved September 26, 2014, from Harvard School of Public Health

Seidenberg, C. (2013, May 28). Gatorade vs. water: Which is better for kids? Retrieved September 26, 2014, from Washington Post

Woodruff, C. (2013, June 29). Is Sugar From Fruit Better For You Than White Sugar? Retrieved September 26, 2014, from Huffington Post