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Staying healthy is critical to college success, but between marathon study sessions, close living quarters and not-so-healthy meal plans, it’s hard for students to stay well.
“[Students] suddenly lose structure going to college and they have to create their own internal boundaries,” says Dr. Gregory Jantz, food psychologist and founder of A Place of Hope. “There are new freedoms and with those new freedoms there are, of course, some new temptations.”
We talked with health experts to identify the biggest culprits of unhealthy collegiate lifestyles and how to get on the right track.
Avoid the ‘Freshman 15’
Adjusting to a new lifestyle can change college students’ eating habits along with their pants size.
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Founder of Bailey's Fitness Inc Kevin Bailey says that avoiding the dreaded “freshman 15” requires that students be conscious of the food they eat, even with a meal plan.
“When you're on a meal plan, sometimes you have to do the best of what you're working with [and choose] the better of the bad choices,” he says. He advises students choose dishes that are more natural and include vegetables and leaner meats.
Students are more likely to pick unhealthy options if it’s been awhile since their last meal, according to Founder of Slim & FIT Jaime Brenkus. Eating small, healthy meals more frequently will stave off hunger attacks and you’ll be less tempted to splurge on fattening foods, he says.
To avoid overeating, Brenkus advises dividing your plate the following way: three quarters complex carbohydrates (fruits/vegetables) and one quarter protein (the size of a deck of cards). If you choose to have carbohydrates, the item should be the size of your fist.
“The bottom line is that serving sizes at all meals need to be portion controlled. That's about as simple as you’re going to get,” says Brenkus.
Staying active not only helps college students maintain a healthy weight, it also increases mental alertness and helps keep stress at bay, say the experts. At most schools tuition covers admission to the gym, but you don’t need to become a gym rat to stay in shape.
“You can go out and walk the campus,” Brenkus says. “You can join intramural teams for free."
The experts suggest scheduling in exercise like you would study or class time to lessen the temptation of skipping it.
Getting Enough Shut Eye
Between late-night study sessions and all-night paper writing, sleep can be scarce for college students.
But getting enough shut eye can affect the way your body functions, says Dr. Samuel L. Krachman, professor of medicine and director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Temple University.
“[Students] can develop symptoms of a disorder called insufficient sleep syndrome, where people have repetitive nights where they're not sleeping the normal amount of time that they need to,” he says. “It leads to feelings of not only fatigue, but gastrointestinal irritability, difficulty concentrating, and general body ache.”
Limiting Your Alcohol Intake
Consuming alcohol in excess is bad for your health for many reasons, including bad decision making, massive amounts of calories and an overall toll on physical health.
“[Drinking alcohol can] mean consuming a lot of calories with literally no nutritional benefit,” Brenkus says. “If you're going to do it, stick to real light beers or wine. I really feel that kids need to avoid sugar-filled mixed drinks, and by all means, have a glass of water in between drinks.”
Drinking can take a toll on your body even after the party is over. Krachman says that alcohol is very disruptive to normal sleep stages. “It might make you fall asleep quicker, but it is very disruptive to deep, quality sleep later on,” he says.
Besides the potential for unwanted weight gain, binge drinking can lead students down a slippery slope and may encourage dependency.
“For some, it takes on a stronghold in their life…and it turns into more of an addiction,” says Jantz. “They're turning to it in some ways as a way to cope.”
College students nation-wide have similar issues and dealing with stress is normal to some degree, says Jantz. If you find that you are having a difficult time managing your stress level, check out your school’s counseling services or reach out to a friend or family member.
“One of the things that we need to remember to do for mental health is there has got to be a system of renewal for you,” says Jantz. “I find that many college students who feel overwhelmed need somebody for a while to kind of walk them through some of this, give them some feedback, and hold them accountable.”
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