Was fitting into your jeans a lot easier before you got to college? Hate to break it to you, but you and your classmates are experiencing a time-honored tradition, the Freshman 15 -- the roughly 15 pounds many students gain during their first year at college.
What to do? "You have to strategize," says Katherine Grubiak, RD, a former dietitian at UCLA's Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center. By that, she means you need to put some effort into eating right, eating enough but not too much, and eating regularly.
It's OK to snack. "That's the biggest myth: that you shouldn't eat after dinner." -- Katherine Grubiak, RD
Rule No. 1: Eat
It might sound surprising, but don't skimp on the calories you need. Going hungry will only leave you less energized and more prone to overeating later.
"You want to eat three meals and two to three snacks a day," Grubiak says.
Breakfast is key, she adds. Some studies show that having a healthy breakfast helps improve academic performance, so make it a part of your day, every day.
Enjoying healthy snacks between meals -- Grubiak recommends nuts, some fresh fruit, non- or low-fat yogurt -- means you won't be tempted to pig out when you hit the dining hall. "Starving doesn't allow any room for smart choices," she says.
The first key move to make at the dining hall is to head straight for the salad bar. Fill up half your plate with fresh vegetables. Then pick your entree.
Grubiak recommends dividing the empty side of your plate equally between protein and carbs. In other words, you want a 3-ounce piece of meat -- that's about the size of a deck of cards -- and a cup's worth of healthy carbs -- think whole grains like brown rice or a baked sweet potato.
Not a carnivore? Three-quarters of a cup of tofu or cooked beans, 1.5 ounces of unsalted nuts, 2 to 3 tablespoons of nut butter, or 3 ounces of tempeh will get you your protein fix.
Rule No. 2: Snack
Most dining halls won't allow you to take any leftovers or second helpings with you, but Grubiak says they often allow students to pocket a few pieces of fruit and a sandwich or two. Take advantage of that, especially if you're on a two-meal-a-day plan. You'll want to nosh on those takeaway items throughout the day.
Snacks are essential at night, too. Grubiak tells students that if they're going to be up late -- and what student isn't? -- they'd better have some good food on hand for fuel.
"That's the biggest myth: that you shouldn't eat after dinner," Grubiak says. "The truth is, your body is constantly utilizing calories."
Stock your dorm fridge with healthy snacks to keep the munchies at bay while keeping the nutrition you need close at hand. Grubiak's favorites include these healthy treats:
• Low-fat or nonfat Greek yogurt, a great source of protein
• Fresh fruit
• Low-fat or nonfat milk, or soy or almond milk
• String cheese
• Hummus and veggies (baby carrots, broccoli florets) for dipping
Grubiak also likes protein bars. They provide a steady source of energy rather than the short sugar spikes you get from candy bars and soft drinks.
Keep in mind that not all protein bars are created equal. Take a look at the nutrition info, and make sure the bar you're buying has at least 7 grams of protein and no more than 30 grams of carbs. And sugar shouldn't be the first ingredient.
Eating well doesn't mean denying yourself everything you love to eat. Just be smart about it. If you go out for burgers, get a small order of fries, and don't supersize your order. And skip the sodas, most of which are loaded with calories. Those are tough to burn off when you spend most of your day sitting at a desk in class or hunched over books in the library.
Rule No. 3: Move
Speaking of burning calories, work some exercise into your daily routine. Going to the gym is a great move when you can get there, but Grubiak tells students not to underestimate the good that walking will do. Give yourself time to take the long way to class, she says. Use the stairs wherever possible.
Don't feel like leaving your dorm? Grubiak recommends surfing the Internet for an aerobics video. Or just crank up your playlist and dance around your room.
Exercise not only helps you maintain a healthy weight but also provides an excellent counter to stress and anxiety. Both can wreak havoc on your diet, causing you to overeat or to skip meals.
Rule No. 4: Drink
Water, that is. You want to make sure you're getting plenty of water throughout the day. Every part of your body needs it.
"Eight cups a day is the bare minimum," Grubiak says. Her advice? Take half your body weight, and drink that many ounces of water. So if you're 150 pounds, that's 75 ounces, or about 10 cups a day.
You don't have to drink all of it. You can also satisfy your water requirement with water-heavy foods like soups, watermelon, vegetables, and beverages.
Grubiak's final piece of advice: Take advantage of where you are in life. You're a student, you're at college, you're learning. Make good nutrition a part of that learning process. Understand the foods that go into your body and what they do for -- or to -- you. That's knowledge you can "chew" on way past graduation day.