Avoid the College Carb Trap

A Low-Carb Guide to College Eating

College Cafeteria
Salad Bar at U.C. Berkeley. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Are you starting or returning to college? Do you worry that you'll end up carrying more weight around with you than just those textbooks? One way to avoid the "Freshman 15" is to pay attention to the amount of carbohydrate you're eating.

The College Carb Trap

When you're suddenly away from home, it's easy to indulge in lots of sugary and starchy foods, both because they are "fun foods" and also because they are often convenient.

For a late-night study break, you could 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 routines, you may easily fall into bad habits which can be harder to change later on.

On the other hand, my daughter, a college freshman at this writing, tells me that she thinks it can be easier in some ways to follow a special diet at college, because a relatively large selection of foods is available and already prepared for you. If you make wise choices, you can avoid the College Carb Trap.

New Choices in the Cafeteria

When I was in college 35 years ago, the choices in the cafeteria often weren't all that varied, let alone appetizing.

More recently, I've had the opportunity to visit the cafeterias in 10-12 colleges in the U.S. On the negative side, there is more of a presence of fast-food outlets on college campuses. On the other hand, I'm happy to report that on most campuses there are many positive trends. There is more of an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, and less processed food in general on many campuses.

Also, there is a trend of breaking foods down into components so you can mix and match to your liking. For example:

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. Tip: Many low-fat and fat-free dressings are loaded with sugar - often over a teaspoon for 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 oil on your salad is a good thing, as it turns out that some oil on your salad will help your body absorb many of the nutrients. If you want a "light" salad, toss it with an oil-based dressing (instead of just dumping dressing on the top) and you'll find it doesn't take much to coat the leaves. On the other hand, when cutting carbs you'll want to be increasing your fat intake somewhat, and salads are a good place to do this.

More on Healthy Salad Dressings

Stir Fry Bars - This is perhaps the most exciting recent development 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 it 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 NOT on pasta! Or, if you can't bear to imagine life with no pasta, ask for a small amount of whole wheat pasta.

Six 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.

1. Focus on the basics: protein, vegetables, and some fruit. If you make sure you are getting enough of these foods, it will make it much easier to avoid the sundae bar.

2. Foods to avoid: basically, sugary and starchy foods: desserts, candy, sweetened beverages, breads, potatoes, rice, pasta, cereal, etc. Check out my Low-Carb Food Pyramid for more help.

3. Don't be afraid of fat. With all the low-fat and fat-free versions of foods prevalent today, this can be a challenge at times. 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 presenceof 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.

4. Get a 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 a jar of mayonnaise and some lettuce in your fridge you can make tuna salad and wrap it in lettuce.

Flax seed meal is a great food to keep in your fridge. Put some in a small zip-type bag, and then at the cafeteria you can put it in a bowl and add hot water, and some peanut butter (if it's too goopy, just add more water). 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.

5. 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.

6. Be extra-careful about beverages. 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. If you are going to drink alcoholic beverages, get familiar with the carbs in them.

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