Among all college students, athletes should be especially interested in eating healthy. This is because they burn so many calories through practice, conditioning, lifting and games; and in order to be successful, it's critical that they replenish properly. However out of all college students, athletes often find healthy eating the most challenging. With little time to actually shop for groceries and cook, and no homemade meals from mom, the low cost, convenience and simplicity of fast food too often makes it an appealing choice.
But that doesn't mean it's the right choice. That's why I enjoy the question, "Coach, how can I learn to eat healthy in college?" (Check out How To Self-Teach Healthy Eating.) I like this question because it tells me that my players are interested in changing their eating habits.
College student-athletes need to eat more than other students to give their bodies the nutrients and energy they need to stay healthy and strong. Skipping meals is definitely not an option. It's a recipe for failure. And rather than eating three big meals a day, student-athletes should consume five or six small meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner plus small snacks in between.
Want to learn how to eat healthy? Here are the exact instructions I give my players.
Are You Currently Eating Healthy?
One of the easiest ways to know if you're eating healthy is to look at your plate before you eat your meal and count how many colors are represented. If you see a rainbow of colors, chances are you have a healthy and nutritious meal before you that'll give your body beneficial vitamins and minerals. For example, red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow peppers, green lettuce, blueberries, brown rice, brown meat, white mashed potatoes and a glass of skim milk or juice. All pretty healthy options right there. On the other hand, if your plate is covered with yellow macaroni and cheese with a side of brown tater tots slathered in red ketchup, with a glass of radiant yellow Mountain Dew, the colors may be bright, but the meal isn't healthy.
Include Fresh, Natural Foods
Strive for fresh and natural foods instead of processed or canned options. The extra minute or two it takes to rinse and chop lettuce, tomatoes and carrots will make your salad much more nutrient-rich. Don't be lazy and buy salad in a bag, pre-cooked broccoli, packaged bologna or canned peaches. Go natural. This rule applies to all fruits and vegetables and most other foods. If you can get it fresh and make it yourself, your body will be healthier and you will be better able to excel in team workouts and in the classroom. The same applies to selecting protein. Choose fish and lean cuts of meat. You don't want your meat fried, lathered in barbecue sauce or dipped in ranch dressing. When dining out or cooking at home, stick with meats, poultry and fish that are grilled, baked or roasted—and avoid creamy and buttery sauces.
What About Sweets?
Yes, I know sweets taste good, but ice cream with chocolate syrup should not become a nightly ritual. Stick with healthy choices for your snacks. Fresh fruits will provide your body with all the sugar it needs. But you don't have to give up your favorite foods completely. If you can commit to eating healthy, treating yourself to some ice cream or cookies once in awhile is a well-deserved reward. Just stay away from fast food! Enough said.
For college students, a big concern about between-meal snacks is their extra cost. Here are a few healthy and nutritious snacks that can be prepared on a budget:
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Peanut butter on toast (or bagel)
- Tuna fish sandwich
- Whole fruit
Eating healthy is a lifestyle change, and it takes some getting used to at first. With time, however, you will begin to feel better and perform better. After awhile, that big, greasy, fried sandwich covered with cheese sauce and mayonnaise at your favorite fast food restaurant won't sound so good to you.