How to Diet Hack Your College Experience
By Ari Snaevarsson, Features Editor
Having been a student at this fine institution since 2013, and an avid diet nerd throughout that same time, I have come to pick up some tips and tricks, and learn some lessons that I thought might be helpful to share with you all today. Whether you are an athlete, meathead, or simply health-conscious student, this information can really be applied to anyone and everyone. I have come to find in my time dealing with nutrition through a variety of lenses (and now in the official capacity of nutrition coach) that it tends to be the simple things where the greatest benefit lies. Rarely is “what you need” going to be some intricate, advanced diet technique or “cleanse.” Rather, it is often working on cementing those “big rocks” that yields the greatest and most measurable successes. A lot of these might sound at first to be age-old platitudes and mantras you have heard before and “already know,” but I would challenge you to read all the way through and humble yourself to realize some of the most basic areas can afford to be addressed. One more note: A lot of these “hacks” do not specifically deal with diet but instead address larger areas that can still be instrumental to your health or performance goals. Let us begin.
1. Invest in protein powder
It is hard to overstate the importance of protein in your diet. Few of us actually get an optimal amount of protein each day, which is a bummer since it can be make-or-break. Adequate protein intake (which I have done articles on and, suffice to say, you should aim for just under a gram per pound of body weight in most cases) does more than just promote retention or building of lean muscle mass; it boosts your immune system, improves regulation of hormones, regulates blood glucose, and more. Not to mention, it is the most filling macronutrient of all, which alone can mean filling yourself up on the good stuff and subsequently not feeling so hungry for the bad stuff.
There seems to be some confusion regarding whether protein supplements are worth it, but in the end, I see little reason to avoid it in your diet. It is often difficult to get enough protein from food sources alone on campus, even if you try really hard (which I have). A nightly shake with two to three scoops of protein powder can ensure you are getting a sufficient intake each day. When it comes to which one to buy, it is pretty hard to go wrong, assuming you are sticking to reputable brands and, generally, sticking to whey protein. Do not buy into the hype regarding the “more quickly absorbed” isolate or hydrolysate forms, or any other of the marketing tricks that supplement companies like to pull. To simplify things, I recommend buying from MyProtein, a British brand that sells cheap, no-nonsense products. Their protein powders taste good, mix well, and come in large sizes so you can buy in bulk.
2. Schedule in your exercise
Another habit the importance of which cannot be overstated is regular exercise. I know, I know, this is probably the 500th time you have heard this, but it is absolutely instrumental to ensuring proper health, performance, and weight management. Stick to a form of exercise you love; there is nothing special (or even really that great) about doing thirty to forty-five minutes on the elliptical. Whether it is recreational pick-up games with friends, nightly runs, or heavy resistance training, anything is better than nothing.
You likely already know the oft-cited reasons exercise is so great: weight management, regular release of endorphins, general stress and mood therapy, spacial awareness, prevention of injury, etc. But here is another one I would be remiss not to throw your way before moving on to the next topic: Keystone habits. You may or may not remember the article I wrote a while back on keystone habits, but if not, here is the rundown: Keystone habits are any habits that lead to the development of other habits. They are usually foundational things like morning meditation or keeping a to-do list or… exercise. You will recall I said exercise is the greatest example of a keystone habit, because it naturally structures and segments your day. If you were to start, say, an exercise plan that has you lift three days out of the week, assuming those are set days (and they should be), you now have a solidified schedule through which the rest of your other good habits can branch off. You could easily schedule a healthy post-workout meal or shake, or you could take a lesson from one of the middle-aged men at my health club and hit the sauna after lifting to make small talk with other gym members, or maybe you could wrap each lifting session up with some stretching. Flexibility and mindfulness are always a plus!
3. Drink water incessantly
I do not quite see the appeal of carrying around an entire gallon of water (though it will totally accomplish the goal of getting others to think you are a badass), but keeping some BPA-free bottle (ideally 32 oz or more) can be a great reminder to keep chugging the water. Why is this so important? The nutritional reasons are so great it would probably suffice to say: Promotion of every single metabolic reaction and structural mechanism in your body. The majority of your basal metabolic rate (the baseline amount of energy spent each day on essentially keeping you alive) is devoted to osmoregulation, keeping fluid on the right side of the cell (to massively simplify things). It is not hard to draw from this why regular fluid intake is so important to a healthy diet.
Another smaller benefit of drinking enough water throughout the day is that it is filling. I mentioned this briefly in my last article, but a super simple way to resist snacking is to fill up on water. I recommend drinking at least 16 oz immediately upon waking up (again, keeping a bottle full of water ready and accessible so you can grab it the second you roll out of bed can be helpful) and then constantly throughout the day. Probably the best way to measure that you are getting an adequate intake is to shoot for five to seven clear urinations a day. Once you hit that, you will know you are drinking enough water. Remember that water does not only come from water drank directly but also water-heavy foods like non-dried fruits and vegetables.
4. Focus on your big rocks
Moving more into the realm of broad life skills, this tip could help you re-orient yourself if you feel like the entire concept of nutrition is too convoluted and advanced for you to even begin exploring. Focusing on your big rocks means prioritizing what is important and shifting away the fixation on the smaller things. Let me give an example to make this concept more concrete. I like to talk about intermittent fasting with people, something I consider primarily a “diet scheduling” technique, though it is not something I am currently using. I find it to be a super helpful way for people to keep eating big meals and to structure their days appropriately while being in a caloric deficit (often without even needing to count calories to make sure this is so). I have had clients really take this up and embrace it, and then come to me and ask all sorts of questions about whether or not they are doing it right. Maybe they are fixating on getting the “fasted window” down perfect, or maybe they simply want to know what foods are allowed during this period (short answer: anything calorie-free). But often times I will press and come to figure out something foundational, like getting enough sleep or eating whole, minimally processed foods, is missing. I have to remind them (and myself, sometimes) that until those “big rocks” are in place, we are really majoring in the minors by worrying about the minutia.
So, what does this mean for you, as a college student? In the most broad language possible, I would say to choose four or five foundational areas to set aside and have as your big rocks. These would be things like “get seven hours of sleep a night” or “de-stress for 15 minutes each day.” Choose them carefully, and stick to them, whether this means writing them down somewhere important or just committing them to memory. In times where you feel like stress is weighing you down and your diet or general self care methods are out of your control, you can pull this out and limit yourself to worrying about those four or five things. Tell yourself that as long as you are routinely doing those foundational habits, you are on track. That is the definition of being in control.
5. Make sleep a priority
It has become somewhat of a meme to remark on how little sleep we must necessarily get because we are college students. I find that notion a bit ridiculous, as we readily admit it is not just bad but horrendous for our health and yet we forgo it for all-nighters full of unfocused, unproductive work. The importance of sleep is too great to sacrifice for anything else, and for the vast majority of people, I reject the idea that you simply must sacrifice some sleep because of your busy schedule. If you cannot bring yourself to drop one of your responsibilities or reevaluate your time management so that your sleep is not ill-affected, you must accept that you are willingly performing at increasingly sub-optimal capacity at all waking hours.
Sleep is how our body cleanses itself on a cellular level daily. It is when growth and repair happens, we process and consolidate memory, and we perform the functions of the parasympathetic nervous system: rest and digest. To skip it is to deny our bodies a huge portion of its needs. Often times we are unable to recognize that unmanageable stress and fatigue is the byproduct of a lack of sleep, and it is easy to convince ourselves why other tasks might be more important. Do yourself a favor and set aside the time necessary to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and make this a priority. In fact, go write this down on your list of four to five big rocks that I just recommended you make. You are going to make that, right?
6. Manage your stress bucket
The concept of the stress bucket is simply that we are not unlimited tanks for stress accumulation, as much as some of us refuse to believe it. If you schedule your day so that every single waking hour is spent being “productive,” you might be able to keep it up for a while due to sheer willpower, but inevitably you will crash and burn, and it is not going to be fun. It is so simple yet so important to constantly keep in mind whether our stress bucket is being managed. It does not mean dedicating time each day to hours of meditation or yoga; it just means scheduling in breaks and being realistic with your expectations. You might think you can fit three homework assignments in the one hour you have free between classes, but you could be doing yourself a great disservice by not giving yourself a margin of error and purposefully underestimating how long it will take. Shoot for having some free time every day, and do not let your free time happen “accidentally.”
7. Do not put your weaknesses on a pedestal
To wrap up this massive piece (sorry), I want to talk about a topic I discuss all the time with my clients, namely the diet “on-off switch.” This is the cliche story of the fitness- and health-obsessed individual “giving in” to the temptation of some appealing junk food and subsequently “going off the rails” and binge-eating everything sweet or salty in sight. It is the epitome of all-or-nothing thinking, which is usually prevalent on some level in most dieters. This leads into the idea of putting our weaknesses (in terms of temptations and diet triggers) on a pedestal. This might be a different way of thinking about it than you are used to, but it makes sense. Paradoxically, when we give a ton of power to, say, the brownies in the fridge we have been dying to get our hands on, we almost guarantee failure. If, instead, we are able to remove power from those foods or temptations, it is by definition no longer tempting to give into them, and if nothing else, we stop ourselves from engaging in this destructive habit of going from perfect to “a mess” at the first inkling of a slip-up.
So, how do we actually go about removing power from these tempting foods? The deceptively simple solution is to employ the “all foods fit” philosophy and stop restricting entire food items (unless, of course, allergies or intolerances are at play). Find a way to incorporate your favorite foods in moderate amounts each day, to the point of satisfaction and not “nibbling on a cookie.” I can promise you no irreparable harm will be done by doing so; in fact, I can promise you that if anything, irreparable harm only comes from not doing so and subsequently ingraining this devastating all-or-nothing mindset.
In closing, I would say to anyone looking to incorporate healthy eating and living into their life that focusing on the simple stuff is almost always going to be your best bet. Focus in on where you are falling short or could afford to pick things up, and work on that, starting small and setting your expectations realistically. Above all, remember that we are here to learn, have fun, make memories, and grow as our own people. Diet obsession and fixation does not fit into that equation.