Healthy student eating MADE EASY

Healthy student eating MADE EASY

Healthy student eating 101

Food is one of the three pillars of good health, yet many people struggle with maintaining a good diet. In an effort to save cash and time, students often resort to lazy eating. But healthy student eating doesn’t have to be hard.

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional bit of comfort food now and again. But in the long term, a bad diet can lead to low energy, irritability, poor sleep, weight gain, depression, and an inability to concentrate or study effectively. Not to mention that your diet is quickly going to become boring if you don’t learn to cook properly.

The good news is that it doesn’t take long to get reasonably proficient in the kitchen. Nor does healthy student eating need to be expensive. Once you know some basic nutrition and cooking skills, you can eat tasty, healthy food without spending a fortune in time or money.

Let’s begin with a primer on nutrition and what a balanced diet looks like.

Know your macros

The first thing to understand is that food acts as your fuel source, giving you the energy you need to function throughout the day. This energy is measured in calories. Roughly speaking, the average adult female needs around 1800 – 2000 calories per day and the average male around 2000-2500 calories.

The amount of calories that you need to consume each day to maintain constant body weight is known as your maintenance calories. Eat less than this and you will lose weight. Eat more and you will gain weight. Simple.

The second thing to understand is that all foods fall into one of three categories, known as macro-nutrient groups, or macros: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. To ensure healthy student eating, you want to divide your calorie intake across these three macros with roughly a 30/20/50 split:

Meal tracking made easy

Wondering how to even work out your calorie intake or how much protein or carbohydrates you’re eating? Just download a free phone app called MyFitnessPal, which makes it easy to track everything you eat and drink and see a breakdown of your daily calorie and macro intake.

This may all sound time-consuming but it’s not. It only takes a few minutes each day to record what you have eaten in the app. If you do this every day for a couple of weeks, you will soon get a good idea of the calories and macros your meals contain.

It will probably throw up a few surprises too, such as how much sugar is in many so-called healthy breakfast cereals. Often, all it takes to switch from a bad diet to healthy student eating is to make a few tweaks to what you already eat. Tracking your food in an app like MyFitnessPal will help you work out what tweaks to make.

Once you get a feel for it, you will be able to look at a plate of food and estimate the calories and macros it contains without needing to use the app. That knowledge will be useful for a lifetime and will make meal planning and design easy for you, so it’s worth the initial time investment.

Before getting into specific meals, let’s examine the science of healthy eating in a bit more detail.


Protein is the most important of the three macro-nutrients. Common sources include meat, fish, eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, beans, tofu and meat substitutes like vegetarian sausages and textured vegetable protein (TVP). Without getting too technical about it, proteins repair and build your muscles and other body tissues. In fact, every cell in your body contains (and therefore requires) protein of some form or other.

The consensus is that you should aim to eat around one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. So if you weigh 80kg, you should plan to eat around 80g of protein per day. You can easily achieve this with a balanced diet, which you can track with the MyFitnessPal app.

Note, protein sources are not 100% protein. The diagram above lists the typical protein content of some common foods. To give you a simple example, chicken is approximately 25% protein. To get 80g of protein purely from chicken, you would need to eat 320g of chicken (4x 80g), which is about two chicken breasts.


Fats are probably the most misunderstood aspect of healthy eating. On the surface, it seems sensible to assume that eating fat makes you fat and that it has no place in a healthy diet. In reality, it’s not that simple. There are many different types of fats – some are good for you and some are bad.

Healthy fats help your body absorb nutrients, support cell repair and provide you with energy. They are found in nuts, seeds, fish, avocados and olive oil. While a limited intake of healthy fats is essential for good health, unhealthy fats are linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Common sources of unhealthy fats include deep-fried food, battered food and desserts.

High fat diets can lead to obesity and heart disease. Note that fat itself is not what causes people to get fat. Weight gain occurs when you eat more calories than you use as energy by being active. Unused calories get stored in your body as fat, causing you to put on weight.

Fat contains more calories per gram than protein or carbs, making it a dense source of fuel for your body. If you want to indulge in fatty foods like chips or ice cream without getting fat, you’re going to need a very active lifestyle to use all that energy up.


Carbohydrates, or “carbs” as they are commonly referred to, are the body’s primary energy source. Common carbs include bread, pasta, potatoes, fruit, vegetables, rice and cereals, as well as sugary foods such as cakes or fizzy drinks. The fact that many well-known energy drinks are loaded with sugar is not a coincidence. It is their sugar content that gives you an energy boost, not some magic ingredient.

As with fats, not all carbs are healthy. A good rule of thumb is that darker is better. Brown bread, brown rice and wholewheat pasta are all healthier than their white equivalents. This is because they are less refined and contain more fibre, so it takes longer for your body to break them down. They act as a slow-release fuel source, keeping your energy levels stable throughout the day and making you feel full for longer, so you eat fewer calories overall.

Refined carbs such as white rice or sugary foods are the opposite of slow release. They are high in starch, which is absorbed quickly by your body, causing your blood sugar and energy levels to spike. These spikes are followed by energy crashes and make you need to eat more often, which leads to weight gain.

If you are a person who gets “hangry” (impatient and short-tempered when you’re hungry) or is prone to sudden energy crashes, you may have too much starchy food in your diet. Switching from refined carbs to healthy carbs should go a long way to solving your problems. It should help you to have more consistent energy levels and reduce that “OMG, I have to eat right now or I’m going to kill somebody” feeling.

In short, stick to brown, wholegrain carbs, which have more to offer in terms of nutrition and flavour. They also help to regulate your energy levels and control your weight.

Putting it all together

OK, you didn’t come here for a science lesson, so why are we telling you this? Because it will help you plan balanced meals and avoid many diet-related issues common with students, such as unwanted weight gain. (Have you heard of “Freshers 15”; the term used to describe how students’ body weight typically increases by 15 pounds in their first year at uni? Learning the basics of nutrition and healthy eating will help you avoid it.)

It may seem like a lot of detail but using this information in your day-to-day lifestyle is actually quite easy. All you need to do is look at the labels on your food packaging and let the My Fitness Pal app do the hard work. You will soon get a feel for it and will be able to stop relying on the app to work out the calories and macros in your meals after a few weeks.

We will explore some healthy meal options and recipes in a series of future articles. In the meantime, here are some quick tips to take the hassle out of healthy student eating.

Tips for healthy student eating

Batch cook multiple portions of your meals. Except for a bit of extra chopping, making a big multi-portion batch of a meal takes almost the same amount of time and effort as making a single portion.

Divide the extra portions into meal-sized servings then put them into sealed food-safe containers and store them in the fridge or freezer to be eaten another day. It’s great when you get home tired and hungry in the evening and can take a healthy, tasty homemade ready meal out of the freezer instead of having a pizza or takeaway.

Don’t drink calories. A 500ml bottle of a typical fizzy drink contains around 50g of sugar and 200 calories. Drink one a day and that is 350g of sugar or 1400 calories per week. That’s almost one extra day’s worth of calories a week in the form of sugar, which is crazy. Fruit juice isn’t much better. Stick to water or diet versions of flavoured drinks to keep your calories down.

Avoid processed foods. Processed foods often contain sugar and unhealthy additives to make them look or taste better. Stick to whole foods instead. Wondering how to work out if something is processed or whole food? Processed foods tend to come in a box, whereas whole foods are still in their natural state, like fresh meat or vegetables.

Eat wholegrain carbs. When it comes to bread, pasta and rice, go for wholegrain rather than white varieties. White carbs are highly refined and nutritionally inferior to their brown counterparts. With potatoes, opt for sweet potatoes, which count towards your five a day, rather than white potatoes, which don’t.

Get your five a day. The nutrients contained within fruit and veg are important for your physical wellbeing. If you include two portions of vegetables with your main meals and eat one or two pieces of fruit, you can easily consume five a day. Note, five is a minimum number, not a top-end target, so don’t skip having a couple of extra portions just because you’ve already hit five for the day.

Avoid sugar. Research is increasingly showing a link between sugar intake and obesity. The more sugar you have in your diet, the more your body will crave it.

Sugar gives you a short-term boost of energy. When this gets used up you have an energy crash, which makes you want more sugar, which continues the cycle. If you find that your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day, you probably have too much sugar in your diet. Try to identify the main sources and cut down or replace them with less sugary alternatives.

Avoid unhealthy snacks. Most unhealthy snacks combine unhealthy fats with either lots of sugar (sweet treats) or lots of salt (bags of crisps). Try to minimise your intake of these foods. If you eat large enough meals you shouldn’t need to snack. But if you find yourself getting hungry between meals, avoid the sweets, cakes or crisps and go for something healthier instead. The best way to avoid temptation is to not keep unhealthy snacks in the house. Here are some healthier alternatives:

  • Nuts. Avoid the ones seasoned with sugar or honey. Stick to plain or salted varieties.
  • Fruit. Most fruits are good for staving off hunger pangs and count towards your five a day.
  • Vegetables and hummus. Raw carrot, celery, peppers or broccoli dipped in hummus is a tasty, healthy snack that can count towards your five a day.
  • Peanut butter. This is calorie-dense and full of healthy fats, so a couple of spoonfuls go a long way. It is also cheap, which is a bonus. Check the labels and avoid the brands which contain higher amounts of sugar.
  • Protein bars. These come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. Grab one of these instead of a standard chocolate bar. They contain more protein and less sugar than your average snack bar.

Disclaimer: food science and nutrition are complex topics. This article is a simplified overview of how to construct a healthy diet. It provides basic common sense information that you can apply to your day-to-day life. It does not account for special dietary requirements but should provide a good framework for most people.