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Tips for College Students’ Healthy Weight Management

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It’s the new year, and sometimes college students come home during winter break with a few extra pounds. Entering college is a pivotal transitional period for most young adults. It is also a key age to prevent obesity and chronic disease by developing healthy eating and exercise habits. College students are prone to practicing unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits, such as pulling all-nighters to finish assignments and study for exams, relying heavily on caffeine, energy drinks, sugar to stay awake, and eating foods that are high in fat and sugar for comfort. In addition, the periods of the most rapid weight gain for adults is in their twenties, which may result in excess weight gain and body fat throughout life.

A research study by Greaney et al. showed that male and female students from 8 universities in 8 states stated the same barriers to healthy weight management. These barriers fell into three categories: intrapersonal (e.g., temptation and lack of discipline); interpersonal (social situations); and environmental (e.g., time constraints, ready access to unhealthy food). Facilitators of healthy habits also fell into these same three categories: intrapersonal (e.g., regulating food intake, being physically active); interpersonal (social support); and environmental (eg, university’s environment supports physical activity). Research done by Nelson et al. also identified factors that influenced college freshman and sophomore student’s weight gain, nutrition, and physical activity. Influences on weight and diet included unhealthy food availability on campus, snacking, late-night eating, alcohol-related eating, stress or boredom eating, and food in student dorms. Other factors that hindered physical exercise were negative experiences using campus recreation facilities, poor weather, and lack of time, motivation, and social support.

Below are some suggested solutions to help students tackle these interpersonal, intrapersonal, and environmental barriers:


  • Take a break by doing jumping jacks, burpees, or running in place in a dorm room; predetermine a number of sets and rounds before starting.
  • Take a walk with friends, classmates, or alone (e.g., walk up and down your street in well lit safe areas).
  • Jump rope – having a jump rope handy is a very simple way to reduce stress, strengthen bones, and obtain cardio exercise; set a timer and aim for at least 10 minutes at a time and a total of at least 30 minutes throughout the day. For those on a second floor try running up and down the stairs.
  • Listen to recorded script for deep breathing exercises or guided imagery (if need audio recording or can self-guide); set a timer and aim for 5-10 minutes.
  • If have the tendency to stress eat, replace high sugar and high-fat content food with fruits and vegetables. Keep the healthy snacks in sight within arms reach.
  • Make it a rule no snacking after dinner –instead drink herbal tea or ask for a carbonated water machine then flavor with fruit juice accents.
  • Go to your student library and request a yoga DVD or check out a video on youtube.

Social Situation

  • Meet friends for hike dates or walks in parks instead of at sit-down cafes and restaurants.
  • If going to a party, eat a healthy and filling snack before so you don’t overeat calorically dense snacks.  Also, avoid the snack area altogether by dancing or talking to people in other rooms. Standing right next to the snack table makes it hard to resist eating all of the yummy options.
  • If planning to drink alcohol, steer clear of flavored, sweetened, and/or mixed drinks. These options are particularly high in added sugars and calories. Keep in mind that 1 gram of alcohol has seven calories, so even if you choose lower-calorie options, the empty calories can still add up quickly. Alcohol also inhibits your ability to make sounds choices –and you may find yourself eating foods that don’t’ serve your body well all while taking in excessive liquid calories.
  • Watch out for mindless eating! Eating while standing, chatting or out of boredom. Try to practice these mindful eating practices.
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with water to stay hydrated and reduce caloric intake. Find a friend who also wants to cut down on alcohol intake for moral support.
  • Join a social sports club, try something new like badminton, wushu or ultimate frisbee. Don’t forget about old time favorites like hiking or indoor soccer.
  • Meet friends at dance clubs, to go rock climbing, or to take a gym class such as yoga or Zumba instead of at more sedentary parties or hangouts at friends’ houses.  Other fun and healthy activities to do with friends include going on bike rides, swimming at the beach or pool, work-out videos and playing frisbee at the park.

Lack of Access to Healthy Food

  • Find out if your campus offers a campus food bank.
  • If transportation is an issue, find out if you have a local CSA (community supported agriculture) that can be picked up at a convenient location or will deliver fresh produce to your door.
  • Order healthy bulk foods online or other products that can be delivered right to your door.
  • Residential life advisors in dorms can make arrangements with on-campus registered dietitian nutritionist or nutrition educator on setting up a trip to nearby grocery stores for students living in dorms to purchase. See our 8 Easy Stove Meals for College Students.
  • Work with other interested students to start a student garden on campus.

High Monetary Costs Associated with Healthful Behaviors

  • Instead of paying monthly dues at a gym, see if your university offers free gym classes.
  • Not motivated to exercise? Find a workout buddy and hold each other accountable to an exercise schedule, set goals together, and monitor each other’s progress! Use these tips to make exercise happen!
  • Instead of going out to eat with friends or spending money on alcohol (both of which eat at your wallet), try meeting friends for walks, bike rides, swimming, and other healthy and fun activities, which do not have high costs but improve your overall health and help manage stress and weight.
  • Instead of eating out with friends, you can suggest a potluck meal or even get your friends to cook together and enjoy each other’s company in the kitchen. Home-cooked meals are generally cheaper than dining out. You can also control what is actually in the dishes, how much to make, and how much you serve yourself, so they’re often healthier, too! Check out these 10 No Cooking Required Healthy Dorm Meals.
  • If you can’t afford fresh vegetables or are concerned you’ll be too busy to eat them in time, buy frozen veggies. Then add foods like frozen peas, broccoli or butternut squash to everyday favorites like mac-n-cheese or pasta.

What Colleges Can Do to Help Empower Students to Be Healthier:

  • Nutrition educators on campus can help provide guidance for students when making cafeteria food choices and other self-regulatory skills, such as planning, time-managing, and self-monitoring, to maintain healthful behaviors in a college setting.
  • Campus Health Centers can offer weekly or bi-weekly nutrition-related workshops to help students set goals on getting more exercise and/or improving their diet. These workshops can also provide social support, particularly to students who are leaving home for the first time, and establish outcome expectations.
  • Universities can provide cooking courses for students to enroll and learn how to prepare and cook to strengthen students’ self-efficacy.
  • Campus dining hall managers can work closely with nutrition educators to provide labeling on healthier food items that are, including 500 calories or less, no added sugar, and low sodium. Food preference labels can also be provided, such as gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan.

In addition to what students can do on their own to overcome these barriers, they need the support from universities. It is important for universities to take an active role in offering an environment that promotes healthy weight and behaviors among students!

Now get cooking and check out these 8 Quick & Healthy Microwaveable Dorm Room Meals!

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About the Author

Melissa is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with a masters in nutrition education. She is founder of SuperKids Nutrition Inc. where she is “saving the world, one healthy food at a time.” Read more about her Super Crew children’s books and her experience as a registered dietitian on the founder’s page. Discover how nutrition can help you live your best health potential through her on-line courses and subscribe to her blog, Melissa’s Healthy Living, for nutrition updates.

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