I started paying attention to my diet when I started to approach physical training for fencing seriously. I realized that my diet played an important role in my physical condition and, in turn, my performance at competition. I did some research and made changes to my diet as I gained new information. After some months of incremental modifications to my diet, I came to settle on a diet that works very well for me - summarily: no added sugar, no wheat, and no dairy products - as long as I have a substantial budget and easy access to a grocery store. At college, however, I have had to find a new diet.
Preparing to go to college, with no car and a tiny budget, I stressed about how to eat well at school while training six days a week. After a few months of experimenting and compromising, I have settled on a system that works for me. Now that I know it can be done, I would like to share some of my tips to maintaining a relatively healthy diet while at college using only campus food options and infrequent trips to the grocery store.
A healthy diet consists of many small meals throughout the day, rather than three or fewer huge meals at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. In order to keep your metabolism and overall energy up, find healthy snacks that you can chow down on throughout the day. The ideal snack enables you to eat as much as satisfies your hunger without forcing you to throw out leftovers or eat more than you want to.
Nuts and trail mix are my personal favorites. Nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios, etc.) are an excellent source of good fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats), fiber, and protein, as well as a decent source of various vitamins and minerals. Just a $0.59 bag of lightly salted peanuts at the corner store packs roughly 300 calories - predominantly from good fats and protein. Alternatively, you can buy boxes of nuts from the grocery store (less than $15 can last you two weeks or more). If nuts aren't your thing, find a snack with zero added sugar and plenty of fiber and protein (and, ideally, good fats). Some of my favorite snack bars include Larabars (dates and nuts in bar form) and Quest bars (high in fiber and protein).
Another note on snacks: make the most of your meal swipe by carrying a handful of fruit out with you after every meal and eating that as your next snack.
Water is typically your best option. Apart from coffee, drinks that carry anything but dihydrogen monoxide are probably contributing to an excess of certain nutrients - sugar, in fruit juice or soda, for example - in your diet.
Be sure to drink small sips throughout the day, even when you are not thirsty. Use a reusable water bottle and keep track of how much you drink throughout the day. Aim for a bare minimum intake of 64 fl. oz. of water daily, approaching a gallon (or more, depending on how much you weigh and how much you sweat).
Getting the Right Balance of Nutrients from Meals
Without researching every item on the dining hall's menu for nutrition information, you can make healthy choices by keeping in mind some general principles. Aim for a blend of food groups. Your body absorbs nutrients best when you have diverse food groups in every large meal. Having fiber-rich foods (e.g. whole grains and vegetables) with each meal will help digestion and help you feel full.
There are many simple choices to make when filling your plate that will impact your health:
- Skip the cheesy eggs and get regular scrambled eggs instead. Get your dairy fix from low-fat, low-sugar yogurt.
- Be brave and eat your sandwich without bread, or your taco without a shell.
- Choose whole grain rice over whole grain wheat bread, and oatmeal over granola (and for these two, pick dried fruit over brown sugar if you are looking for a sweetener).
- Choose water over juice.
- Still not satisfied after eating two plates of food? Grab another plate of grains or meat instead of a cookie.
- Remember what you've had throughout the day; if you had three spicy (read: salty) items for lunch, skip the salt at dinnertime.
- Have dressing with your salad. Most dressings are loaded with good fats, which are a more efficient store of energy than carbohydrates.
- Choose 2 percent or non-fat milk over whole milk (most fats in milk are saturated fats, i.e. bad fats).
For Athletes and Other Gym-Goers
If you're not taking supplements and you're not actively trying to eat more protein, you're probably not getting enough protein. The magic range is roughly 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body mass (1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram). If you are lacking, you can up this with protein-rich foods such as eggs, meats, and nuts (especially peanuts), or with supplements, which can be bought in bulk for relatively low prices per weight.
I encourage anyone reading this out of interest in improving personal health to do their own research. Changing your diet is a momentous task, but it can be done by focusing on making small, everyday choices with health in mind.