Fight the ‘freshman 15’:
Eating low carb in college

College is hard. Students must balance staying on top of academics, extracurriculars, jobs, internships, social lives, and hopefully still find time to sleep. All these challenges are combined with the beginning of adulthood, which brings exciting freedom and terrifying responsibility — as well as tequila. It is no surprise that college kids often don’t take care of themselves.

This manifests itself in diet. We’ve all heard about the dreaded “Freshman 15” (pounds) that many students gain in their first year of college — and unsupervised eating. It’s really more like three pounds, but many find themselves unable to lose this weight.

Worse, similar numbers of pounds can pile on throughout their four years. But those pounds are the least of your worries; regardless of weight, subsisting on lattés, ramen, and beer is not good for you in any way.

We’ve created this practical guide to help you avoid both weight gain and sugar crashes. How? By eating low carb on campus.

We’ll mostly talk about students on meal plans, but if you are a student who has decided to save money by cooking, you should also check out this general guide to low-carb eating and this guide to cheap low-carb eating.

Breakfast: How to start your day without a bagel

On campus, a hypothetical morning person can make time for leisurely, healthy breakfasts: a stop at a campus dining hall omelet bar, perhaps. If you are a person who can pull yourself out of bed an hour and a half before your first class, I fear and respect you. This guide is going to focus on the rest of us.

Hitting snooze too many times and rolling out of bed twenty minutes later than you intended isn’t an excuse to grab a bagel or cereal bar before class. Starting the day with carbs and sugar will leave you hungrier and crankier in the long run. There are plenty of quick low-carb breakfasts you can grab from a campus cafe or the dorm kitchen.

  • Eggs: If your campus has a cafe that can whip up a couple of fried or scrambled eggs on the go, that’s great. If not, and you’re feeling like a real adult, you can keep a pan, some butter, and some eggs in your dorm kitchen. I promise it isn’t that hard, even if you are still half asleep. Add some cheese or spinach if you are ambitious.
  • Hack a cheap to-go breakfast: Get a breakfast sandwich with egg, sausage, and cheese, and take off one or both buns. You won’t miss them (that much).
  • Mix and match: Try any combination of a banana/apple and peanut butter, a lightly sweetened, full-fat Greek yogurt, or cheese and nuts until you’re full.

Breakfast inspiration

The coffeeshop: Get a caffeine fix, not a sugar one

Caffeine is a must for most students, but a coffee run can come with a massive dose of sugar if you’re not careful. Any coffee drink that tastes like a milkshake cannot be trusted. If you see the words “whipped cream” or “caramel drizzle,” you have gone too far.

Train yourself to drink black coffee or tea and add a little whole milk or cream yourself. Go for drinks with no added sweeteners. If you absolutely must, add your own sugar substitute — you will use less than the barista. Your drink might not be as much of a treat as before, but that is the way it’s supposed to be. Dessert is dessert; coffee is coffee.

And please do not go for the muffin or the pastry; coffeeshop food is treacherous. If it’s baked, has flour, or added sugar, avoid it. If you really want a dessert, have one. A muffin is just a disappointing morning cupcake.

The all-you-can-eat dining hall: Good things come to those who moderate

Meal plans, especially freshman ones, often incentivize hitting the buffet. This is a great opportunity for variety, but don’t try to get your money’s worth by (over)eating everything. You have to retrain your brain to view all-you-can-eat differently.

In the past, all buffets were special occasions — a rare opportunity. This made it okay to go crazy. But in college, your dining hall isn’t a special occasion. It’s your life. Learn how to moderate.

A general rule to ensure that you are building healthy meals is to focus on pairing protein with colorful veggies. Explore all possible stations of the dining hall for variety.

Don’t see a protein that looks healthy and appetizing at the main Grill station? Check the Deli station to see if it has a good meat dish. Don’t see any appetizing veggies at the dinner station? Check out the vegetarian station.

Try new things. Does your school offer stir-fry? Have some without rice. Build salad bowls with cooked veggies from the grill and grilled chicken from Kosher. Have salmon from the dinner station and green beans and broccoli from Vegan. Try to cut down on bread, potatoes, pasta, and sugar as much as you can.

One more thing: skip the soda machine. It is a crazy source of sugar. Instead, see if you can get unsweetened tea, seltzer, or of course water (possibly infused with questionably effective floating lemon slices if your dining hall is ~fancy~).

But don’t drive yourself crazy. Weight loss is another issue; this is about avoiding unnecessary weight gain. Part of moderation is knowing when to treat yourself. If you want some pasta, have a bit. If the cookies fresh out of the oven are calling your name, go for one. The key is to be mindful.

Your dorm room fridge: A blessing and a curse

The question of what to keep in your dorm or apartment fridge or kitchen is one that will vary, person by person. To decide what’s best for you, evaluate your habits. Do you snack? Do you eat mindlessly out of boredom? Can you make it in between meals without snacks?

If you know that you will snack on anything that is there, don’t keep tempting foods in your room. Have a few power snacks, like nuts, cheese, and dark chocolate, but only those that you will eat out of hunger, not boredom.

If you are planning to make your own breakfasts, keep butter, eggs, yogurt, or whatever you need in your fridge. If you are not on a meal plan and are planning to eat more meals you make yourself, that is a different challenge. Check out this Diet Doctor guide to cheap low-carb eating. Just remember that you can do better than just making ramen every night.

Free food: Everything has a price

College is insanely expensive, and most college students can smell free food from a mile away. If you are looking for it, a lot of American colleges have free food groups on GroupMe or social media to alert students of the time and place to get a free meal.

However, just because food is free does not mean you should feel obligated to eat it.

Don’t go for donuts or pizza you don’t really want; it may be free of charge, but there is a price to pay in health and weight gain. Free Pad Thai is only fun if your clothes fit.

The general rule of free food is the same as regular food: is it good for you? If not, do you truly crave it, or are you just eating it because it is free? If the answer is that you’re eating it just because it’s free, skip it. Your waist will thank you later.

Study snacks: Don’t let the stress get to your stomach

Spending long stressful hours in the library makes it easy to eat mindlessly. Be mindful! Studying is not just a mental game; how you are fueling your body will affect your brain.

Avoid sugary and carby snacks. They are tasty in the moment, but the spike of sugar from a candy bar will only have you feeling worse as your cram session goes on. Sugar highs are fleeting and will end with a crash. You can’t cram for your midterm if you are falling asleep at your desk.

If you need to snack to make it through, try to go for nuts, cheese sticks, veggies and hummus, or even a boiled egg. Most college libraries have cafés that will offer all these snacks and more, all day and all night. Check out this Diet Doctor snack guide for more tips.

Also, try to focus on hydrating. Bring a reusable water bottle with you as you study or get green tea from a coffeeshop nearby. It’s possible you aren’t that hungry, just dehydrated.

Low-Carb Salami and Cheese Chips - A Crunchy Snack

Guide to low-carb snacks

GuideWhat low-carb snacks are good? Use our ultimate visual guide to low-carb snacks, with the top no-preparation snacks (nuts, cheese etc.), and the top low-carb snack recipes etc. Plus the most common mistakes!

The frat party: It’s called a beer belly for a reason

Now, the part of the guide you were looking forward to: drinking. Though of course no one at an American college would drink before the legal age of 21, freshmen may still want to take note of how to drink responsibly (in terms of carbs) for… no reason.

Alcohol may be fun, but it is a sneaky source of major doses of carbs and sugar. Carbs still count in liquid form. Be especially wary of the cheapest and most plentiful drink option you will see at parties: beer.

Diet Doctor has a full guide for low-carb drinking, but the gist for college is this: beer is not your friend. It will often be the only option out but go easy on it. Always try to drink light beer, which shouldn’t be hard (it’s cheaper).

Sugary mixed drinks in big batches are also suspicious, and not just for safety reasons. If it’s so sweet you can’t taste the alcohol, then the drink is packing a massive dose of sugar.

Avoid drinking too much when you are out, as the options are rarely good. Have your friends over to drink light cocktails before you go out. A vodka soda is always a good option. When you are out, look for spiked seltzer and other low-carb alcohol options.

Go easy though. How skinny your drinks were doesn’t matter much if you’re getting your stomach pumped.

Late night: “Drunk you” is your greatest enemy, other than French fries

Often after a boozy night out, the munchies hit hard. Every school has a different tradition, but often friends will go to a late-night diner, campus food spot, or order a pizza in the early hours of the morning. This is a dangerous game. French fries and cookies still count when you are drunk.

Skip it altogether if you are not really hungry. Your friends might complain, but you have already spent all night with them. The best way to resist temptation is to avoid it.

If you need to eat, see if you can get something that isn’t fried or baked (that might be hard). Look for things with protein and fat instead of carbs and sugar. Unbreaded chicken wings or hot dogs without the bun are good options.

Get creative if you need to. Is there a make-your-own pasta bar? Then get a meatball and sauce with parmesan, no pasta necessary. Discover the delicate art of eating pizza toppings but leaving the crust behind.

Most importantly, instead of focusing on eating, focus on drinking water. Lots of it. Your body will thank you tomorrow.

The Big Picture: It’s a marathon, not a race

Just because college is hard does not mean low-carb eating has to be. Like most things in college, it is very possible, you just need to have the willpower to resist temptation at every corner, or at least most of the time.

This guide is a series of suggestions for the best possible choices, but it’s okay to not follow it 100% of the time. Treat yourself when you want to. Take solace in the fact that you are still young enough for your metabolism to forgive you.

Much like day-drinking in college, eating in college is a marathon, not a race. Making the right choice most of the time should be enough to fight off dreaded freshman weight gain without a crazy crash diet.

Figure out what works for you and do it. Don’t let worrying about what you eat make you any more stressed than you already are. Drink lots of water, get enough sleep, and try your best to eat well.

And don’t forget to go to class.

/ Isabel Calihan

Editorial note: Diet Doctor does not condone underage drinking. But we also don’t want to ignore reality. Always drink responsibly, no matter what the context.

Low carb eating