Avoiding "The Freshman": A Guide to Low-Carb Eating in College

Whether at the salad bar or the pub, finding low-carb food is key

Students in the cafeteria

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As a college freshman, there are lots of new stressors, both good and bad. Making new friends, living without your parents or other family members for the first time, steering clear of risky behaviors and peer pressure, new academic demands, even dealing with a roommate who leaves a mess everywhere or blasts loud music—the adjustments can be overwhelming.

With that can come a tendency to overeat, which, combined with a dining hall that offers fried, sugary, and high-carb foods in oversized portions, is what leads to the "freshman 15." You may find yourself eating to self-soothe difficult emotions, or out of boredom or stress.

Not only that, but these foods are also convenient. For a late-night study break, you may find yourself hitting the vending machine for a snack. In the morning, those bagels are an easy thing to grab on the way to class. There are unlimited desserts in the cafeteria, and the snack bar is stocked mostly with muffins and cookies. These refined carbs can really pile on the weight at an alarming rate.

Especially when trying to establish new academic routines, you may easily fall into bad habits that can be harder to change later on.

Avoiding the College Carb Trap

Rest assured that there are many strategies to prevent weight gain in the first year of college. Aside from hitting the fitness center, another helpful way to avoid the freshman 15 is to pay attention to the amount of carbohydrate you're eating. A high-carb diet, especially if you're not an athlete, is a way to pack on pounds fast. An emphasis on low-carb eating can keep weight in check.

Unfortunately, there are fast-food outlets on college campuses. But there are also many positive trends, such as fresh fruits and vegetables as well as less-processed food choices. Also, there is a trend of breaking foods down into components so you can mix and match to your liking. 

Navigating the Dining Hall

Salad Bars. Almost every cafeteria has them now, with more and more choices. Stay away from the potato and macaroni salads, and go for a rainbow of fresh vegetables and lots of greens.

Many low-fat and fat-free dressings are loaded with sugar, often over a teaspoon of sugar in every tablespoon of dressing! You can ask one of the people in the cafeteria for information on which dressings have less sugar. Or, even better, just use olive oil with lemon or vinegar and salt and pepper. Some heart-healthy olive oil on your salad is a good thing because when cutting carbs you'll want to be increasing your fat intake somewhat. 

Stir Fry Bars. This is perhaps the most exciting offering for students who are watching their carbs. In these set-ups, you can choose which proteins and vegetables you want to combine. Some cafeterias let you cook the food yourself, while in others the staff will cook it for you. This low-carb vegetable list can help you choose.

Pasta Bars. If there's no stir-fry bar, there might be a pasta bar, where you can choose what to put on pasta. The good news is, you can choose to have those things without pasta! Or, if you can't bear to imagine life with no pasta, ask for a small amount of whole wheat pasta.

6 General Rules for College Eating

If you follow these guidelines, you will greatly reduce your intake of problematic foods. Of course, if you are following a specific low-carb diet plan such as Atkins or South Beach you'll want to follow the rules of that plan.

Focus on the basics. Protein, vegetables, and some fruit should be your staples. If you make sure you are getting enough of these foods, it will make it much easier to avoid the sundae bar.

Make sugary and starchy foods the exception, not the rule. Desserts, candy, sweetened beverages, breads, potatoes, rice, pasta, and cereal should be eaten sparingly if you want to avoid weight gain. Check out this low-carb food pyramid for more help.

Don't be afraid of fat. With all the low-fat and fat-free versions of foods prevalent today, it can be a challenge to find healthy sources of fat. Look for foods such as avocado, olives and olive oil, nuts, peanut butter, and, yes, even butter. As Dr. Richard Feinman, an expert in nutrition and biochemistry, states, "The deleterious effects of fat have been measured in the presence of high carbohydrate. A high-fat diet in the presence of high carbohydrate is different than a high-fat diet in the presence of low carbohydrate." In other words, if you watch your carbs, don't worry about eating more fat.

Keep small refrigerator for your room. A refrigerator, as well as a few well-chosen staples, can be an enormous help in staying away from the chips and pizza. For example, if you keep mustard and some lettuce in your fridge you can make tuna salad and wrap it in lettuce. Flax seed meal is another great food to keep in your fridge. Put some in a small zip-lock bag and bring it to the cafeteria, where you can add it to salads. Or add it to plain yogurt with some nuts and fruit. Check this low-carb snack list for more ideas of food to keep in your room.

Use the kitchen if available. If you can prepare simple foods such as hard-boiled eggs or low-carb pizza, you can greatly expand your food choices.

Be extra-careful about beverages, alcoholic or otherwise. Almost all of the "healthy" beverages sold these days have a lot of sugar in them, so read labels carefully. Also, bottled sugary cocktails are popular these days, so if you're 21 and heading to the local bar, get familiar with low-carb cocktails. 

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Article Sources
  • Eatright.org. 8 Ways to Beat the Freshman 15.