Nutrition During The College Years

For many young people, completely independent nutrition decisions begin during the college years. Moving away from home means no more regular family meals, and college cafeterias can present an almost unlimited variety of nutritional–but not always nutritious–options.

College can also be a time in which:

  • Long-term nutritional habits are formed
  • Long-term relationships with food are developed
  • Meals are unstructured
  • Teenage metabolisms are slowing down
  • Young people are just beginning to buy and cook food for themselves on a regular basis.

Lifelong nutritional paths are often laid during the early 20s. Cooking becomes a joy or a chore, food becomes a source of pleasure or a source of emotional turmoil, and baseline adult body weights are established.

Challenges to Nutrition in College

College is a time of transition in many other areas as well, and these transitions can affect food choices and nutritional habits. Stress and competing priorities can push decisions about nutrition in college to the sidelines. In some cases, this can lead to a frequent reliance on the easiest nutritional options. An unlimited meal plan combined with a busy schedule can equate to poor choices and overeating.

The “freshman 15” is the term used to describe the additional weight students tend to gain during their first semester away from home. The freshman 15 isn’t universal–many young people actually lose weight during this time. But weight gain in early adulthood can be difficult to reverse, and college obesity can become a serious problem when the freshman 15 becomes the freshman 20 or 30… or more.

By the same token, body image concerns tend to take on a new significance during the college years, and eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa tend to rise in young adult populations at this time.

Questions and Answers About Nutrition in College

The college student’s nutritional challenges may give rise to a few common questions. Consider speaking with health educator or nutritionist at your college’s health and wellness center if you have additional questions.

Q: How can I eat just the right amounts of just the right foods without becoming overwrought about food and eating?

A: Eating should be a thoughtful activity, but not an obsessive one. So relax. Nutritional mistakes, nutrient gaps and weight gain are common during this period, but they are not life sentences.

Q: How do I find the time to make healthy–not just fast–decisions?

A: Finding time for healthy eating may mean scheduling regular meals. Try to limit snacking and unstructured visits to the dining hall. Start each day with breakfast.

Q: How much food does my adult body actually need?

A: In order to determine how much food your body needs, be observant. Pay attention to how you feel after large and small meals. Recognize when you’ve had enough and when you’re eating for reasons unrelated to hunger.

Q: What are the healthy decisions I should be making? How many calories are actually in this bagel, and if I don’t know, where can I find out?

A: Nutritional information is easier to find than you may realize. The USDA and the National Institutes of Health have ample, reliable information online about the nutrient values of various foods. They also provide researched recommendations.


Meals Matter. (2010). Personal nutrition planner. Retrieved August 23, 2010, from

Medline Plus. (2010). Teen health. Retrieved August 23, 2010, from

United States Department of Agriculture. (2010). USDA MyPyramid food guidance system. Retrieved August 23, 2010, from