The Real College Guide: Health & Fitness How to Eat Healthier at the Dining Hall

By Amara Dieter for The Real College Guide

A recent study examining weight gain of Marquette University freshmen indicates that your proximity to your dining hall increases your likelihood of putting on weight. But don’t cancel your meal plan yet!

We turned to Paula Martin, nutritionist for Carnegie Mellon University, to help you navigate the dining hall for nutritious foods. “College is a time for practicing some self-control,” she points out. Self-control? Ah, yes. Use it to steer clear of these common dining hall no-no’s, with smart swaps for every meal you swipe:

Healthier Dining Hall Breakfasts
Whatever you do, don’t skip the first meal of the day. It kick-starts your metabolism!

INSTEAD OF: Eggs and all the fixin’s
GO FOR: Egg whites and turkey bacon or sausage

Eating whole eggs, bacon, pancakes and hash browns piled high every morning will definitely help you pack on the pounds. Skip the yolks and you’ll still get the protein and a filling meal, and remember to exercise portion control. “You don’t have to stuff yourself just because you can,” Martin reminds us.

INSTEAD OF: A smoothie
GO FOR: Hot oatmeal with berries and bananas

Sure, smoothies might seem healthy. (After all, they are made of fruit!) But most smoothies are packed with added sugars — and are supersized! Choose oatmeal to stay full longer, and top with fruit for the same nutritional benefits as the smoothie — without the refined sugar.

INSTEAD OF: A pastry
GO FOR: Whole-grain toast and a piece of fruit

Sweet and tempting items are ever-available in the dining halls. While the sugar will give you an energy jolt, it will be short-lived … and won’t be worth the calories you’ll be craving by midmorning. Martin recommends the whole-grain toast and fruit combo for a healthful dose of filling fiber and sweet-tooth satisfaction.  

Healthier Dining Hall Lunches
Lunch in college is often on the run between classes (and naps), so take note to take out these grab-and-go meals:

INSTEAD OF: Salad with cheese, bacon bits, croutons and creamy dressing
GO FOR: Leafy green salad with low-fat dressing

Eating right at the dining hall may mean spending a bit more time in the salad bar section … just beware of the toppings full of excess calories from unhealthy fats, like greasy croutons and heavy, full-fat dressings (such as ranch). Instead, opt for a low-fat vinaigrette and stick with dark-colored veggies, which are full of vitamins and nutrients.

INSTEAD OF: Pre-made ham and cheese sandwich
GO FOR: A pre-made hummus wrap

While Martin suggests “high-quality protein to sustain you between meals with less saturated and trans fat,” fatty add-ins like mayo and too much cheese can make a convenient grab-and-go sandwich into a healthy-diet disaster. Especially when picking up a prepackaged meal on the run, make sure you read the ingredients. As a rule of thumb, wrap sandwiches are more likely to be filled with veggies and properly-portioned lean proteins.

Healthier Dining Hall Dinners
“Think about your plate as a peace sign with three sections,” Martin advises. Each section represents a different nutritional profile: 1) vegetables or whole fruit, 2) whole grains and complex carbohydrates, and 3) a lean protein.

INSTEAD OF: Chicken fingers and fries
GO FOR: Grilled chicken with mixed vegetables and a side salad

Martin warns against plates full of beige foods, since this often means a plate full of starches. Swap fries for mixed veggies full of hues, which look and taste better than anything from a deep fryer anyway.

INSTEAD OF: Mac ’n’ cheese
GO FOR: Vegetable stir-fry

Are you a vegetarian who isn’t getting her vegetables? Going veggie doesn’t automatically mean healthy. While french fries and mac ’n’ cheese technically qualify as vegetarian, “if you are choosing to go meat-free, you must include more vegetables and beans, and less cheese,” advises Martin. She recommends a stir-fry as an excellent comfort food substitute.

Healthier Dining Hall Snacks
Staying satisfied between meals is especially important in the middle of the day, when you run the risk of being stuck in lecture with a growling stomach. (Talk about distracting!) Snack smart:  

GO FOR: Trail mix

Grabbing a bag of peanut M&M’S every day after lunch to munch on during class for energy? There’s protein in peanuts, sure, but the refined sugars and saturated fat don’t translate into smart snacking material. Instead, pack a small bag of trail mix to avoid the sugar crash and still pump up the protein: B.Y.O.Bag and hit the dining hall salad bar and cereal section to make your own with almonds, dried cranberries, dried apples, walnuts and sunflower seeds — or whatever nuts, fruit and whole-grain cereals you like!

INSTEAD OF: Protein or vitamin drinks
GO FOR: Water
Warns Martin: “These may contain extras that are not considered healthful, such as caffeine, sugars, unproven herbal supplements and unnecessary extra vitamins. Beverages are one of many places students forget to look when trying to use portion control to help with weight management.” Stick with water, and your body will thank you!

INSTEAD OF: Cake or ice cream
GO FOR: Frozen yogurt
Your dining hall may be full of classic desserts that look great, but it may offer an even better option: fro-yo! Just make sure you stick to a reasonable amount. “One 4-ounce serving of frozen yogurt is fine — a double serving with candy mix-ins is not a healthy choice,” says Martin. Indulge wisely.

Bottom line: Make smart choices and don’t crowd your plate with huge servings. You’ll satisfy your body’s needs — without overeating.

Talk It up! What irresistible dining hall delicacies leave students at your school begging for more? 

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