Nutrition and Mental Health Are the Biggest Health Concerns for College Students

College campuses across the country are filling with eager students ready to start the school year. College is a great place to make memories, it can also be an easy place to get sick if you’re not careful. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.7 million students enrolled in colleges and universities during the 2011-2012 academic year. Students worry about grades, their social life, and their major, but most students have little concern for their health.

Health and wellness is often overlooked by new and veteran college students. Universities attempt to educate new incoming freshmen about sexual diseases, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as mental and physical health, but most students don’t take those topics seriously. As reported by NPR, Dr. Al Glass said five big health issues among college students are: mental health, sleep, infectious disease, exercise, and alcohol.

I asked DietsInReview.com’s resident dietitian, Mary Hartley, RD, what is the biggest health-related concern for college students? She answered, “Mental health, which includes eating disorders and overweight related to binge eating.” Issues arise from mental health problems that cause a big impact on a college student’s life.

Weight loss or gain is a common concern most students have. During my freshman year of college, avoiding the infamous “freshmen 15” was the biggest health concern I had. But, through my horrible eating habits, stress level, and lack of physical activity, I gained more than 15 pounds. I’m not alone.

Mary mentioned “studies show that the freshmen 15 is more like the freshmen 5, but weight gain happens because new students are surrounded by an abundance of food in the cafeteria, the dorms, and off campus. Plus, there are lots of opportunities to be inactive and miss sleep. Some students may overeat to cope with the stress of transition.”

Mary’s explanation of weight gain during college can be applied to many students, and it definitely applied to me. Of course, weight gain can be avoided with the proper nutrition and exercise. Everyone knows Ramen noodles are a college student staple food, but the instant noodles are packed with MSG, sodium, calories, and have little nutritional value. Why buy Ramen if it is bad for your health? The answer is simple, it is cheap and leaves college kids less hungry in minutes.

“Prevent weight gain by making a point of choosing a balanced diet and getting enough exercise and sleep,” advised Mary.

Seem like a bigger task than declaring a major? Here are a few tips to ensure a balanced diet in college:

1. Refine your food plan: Which foods will you choose in the cafeteria? Keep in your room? Will you take a physical education class? Use the campus health facility to help set your nutrition and eating plan on the right track. As well, an introductory nutrition course will put a valuable three-hour credit on your schedule this semester, as will any of the yoga or fitness courses available.

2. In the cafeteria, go for high-fiber cereal, fat-free milk, lots of vegetables and fresh fruits, and choose small portions of fish and lean meat. Skip the fried food and free dessert.

3. Food in your room should be minimally processed, such as oatmeal, natural peanut or nut butter, nuts, and dried fruit, and yogurt.

4. Associate with other students who take care of themselves. We tend to adopt the habits of those we spend the most time with.

5. Get plenty of sleep, or as much of the recommended eight hours a night as possible. A good night’s sleep will not only make you feel more alert and energetic in the morning, but it can have a direct impact on your mental health, stress and anxiety level, and your weight.