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The Grad Student’s Guide to Healthy Eating

Whether you’re cramming for midterms or spell-checking your thesis after hours, it’s easy to reach for a Snickers… or Cool Ranch Doritos… or a frozen meal that comes in a plastic bag or a cardboard box. Good nutrition and good grades don’t have to be mutually exclusive, though. From healthy eating hacks to our free downloadable meal plan, learn how to boost your nutrition while boosting your grades.

Author: Kaylee Thornhill

Editor: Staff Editor

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A joyful black woman with curly hair, wearing a yellow top, eats a healthy salad in a modern, stylish dining area.

Our bodies need fuel to survive, but they need nutrition to thrive. Good nutrition improves your overall physical health and positively affects your energy levels, mental clarity and concentration, immune system, and even your sleep. Simply put, when you eat better, you feel better. When you feel better, you think better, and the ability to think clearly and concentrate for long periods is crucial for success in grad school.

Healthy eating is not always easy, though, especially in a culture filled with drive-through windows and processed convenience store snacks. Navigating the ever-changing health guidelines, trends, and claims is challenging and requires diligence. Knowing where to start, learning to maximize your time, and spending wisely combine to make healthy eating more sustainable. To help in that effort, this guide provides healthy eating basics, meal prep steps, and healthy eating hacks to make healthy eating easier for even the busiest grad student.

A major reason healthy eating is so difficult is that no one-size-fits-all approach exists with our varying metabolisms, body types, schedules, and dietary preferences and needs. Be wary of anyone purporting to have the magic bullet for weight loss or the formula for healthy eating. Don’t be dismayed, however, because it is possible to discover a path that works for you when you start with nutrition basics and have a sense of what you want.

Start by evaluating your current eating habits. The USDA’s My Plate Quiz examines what you are eating now and makes recommendations on how to improve your nutrition as well as provides resources to help you better understand it. Starting with nutrient-dense foods, this tool helps you select healthy foods that fill you up. Nutrient density refers to the ratio of nutrients to calories, and foods scoring high in nutrient density are foods you want to reach for more often.

My Plate breaks your plate down into these categories:

An intuitive eating mindset rejects diet culture and instead embraces the body’s natural cues. Paying attention to hunger and fullness cues allows you to be satiated and avoid overeating. Intuitive eating also avoids labeling foods as “good” or “bad” and instead relies on the individual to pay attention to how certain foods make them feel and basing food choices on that. Many nutritionists recommend this approach because it affirms a person’s ability to make healthy choices based on listening to their body and fueling it in a way that feels best for them. Eating spurred by emotions is detrimental to both physical and mental health since food does not actually help resolve negative emotions. Embracing intuitive eating means you’re working to establish a healthy relationship with food.

If you listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues and are practicing intuitive eating, , you shouldn’t need to track calories. Calorie intake needs vary depending on your activity and energy outputs on a given day. Every person has an average calorie need to maintain weight, and you may benefit from calorie tracking if you’re unexpectedly losing or gaining weight. Unexplained weight loss or gain can also be a symptom of an underlying health condition, eating disorder, or other cause, so talk to your primary care doctor, therapist, or another health professional if you have unexplained weight changes. You can also obtain information about eating disorders and treatment through the National Eating Disorders Association.

One of the simplest tests ways to evaluate the nutrition of a food is by counting the number of ingredients. Foods with a single ingredient are ideal because they are whole, unprocessed foods and naturally higher in nutrients than processed foods with numerous ingredients. Loading up your grocery cart with food from the perimeter of the store where more whole foods are found helps ensure you eat more whole foods. Also aim to buy foods with five or fewer ingredients to cut back on highly processed foods.

Because no foods should be labeled “good” or “bad” according to the principles of intuitive eating, sugar is not something you have to avoid at all costs, however, moderating your intake is beneficial. Sugar is often added to foods you might not expect, so it’s easy to consume more than you realize. Additionally, sugar contains little nutritional value and contributes to energy crashes, so limiting your consumption may help you have steadier energy. A balance of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and high-quality fats provides more consistent energy. Avoiding soda and other sugary drinks is a great first step to limiting sugar. Make a habit of reading nutrition labels and checking for added sugars.

Many of us enjoy the ritual of a morning cup of coffee or tea, but according to Authority Nutrition, consuming too much caffeine or consuming it too late in the day often contributes to disrupted sleep, irregular energy levels, and increased feelings of anxiety. If you start relying more on your caffeine intake than hours of sleep for energy, consider making sleep a higher priority and limiting your caffeine intake to earlier in the day. Graduate school can make getting enough sleep difficult, but providing your body with better fuel with a balanced diet will also help optimize your energy and focus.

According to the USGS an adult’s body is 55-60% water, and many people underestimate how much water they need to drink in a day. A good baseline is to drink half of your current body weight in ounces. For example, someone weighing 160 pounds should drink 80 ounces of water a day. Proper hydration improves energy levels, hunger and satiety cues, and overall health. Drink up!

One of the best ways to eat healthily is through a meal prep habit. Planning ahead helps you balance your diet by creating a deliberate approach to choosing a variety of healthy meals and snacks. It also saves you time and avoids choosing what to eat when you are already hungry. Meal prep requires planning, but it doesn’t have to be a daunting task. You can plan your whole week and pre-prep meals to cook at home or eat on the go based on your schedule. Here’s a step-by-step approach to meal prep.

Still not sure how to get started? Decision fatigue, especially for busy grad students, often gets the best of us. To help, we’ve put a list of easy and balanced meal ideas in a downloadable guide to get you started with the basics of meal planning and prepping. After considering the week of sample meals provided on the first page, use the blank page to create your own meal plan and grocery list. Below are easy meal suggestions that you can make ahead, grab, and be on your way.

Pro Tips from a Registered Dietician

KatherineZavodni

Katherine Zavodni, is a registered dietitian, nutrition therapist and certified eating disorder dietitian, passionately committed to helping others tune out the external noise to enjoy food and find peace with their bodies. She aims to empower people to resist the world’s message that our bodies are a problem to be fixed. You can find Katherine at https://www.kznutrition.com/ and on her Podcast, Feeding Humans.

Q. What are the basic principles of intuitive eating and how does it differ from typical diet culture?

A. Intuitive eating is based on trust that our bodies can guide us toward a pattern of eating that is flexible, satisfying, and meets our needs, and that we don’t need to adhere to external rules and standards in order to achieve a functional eating pattern. Diet culture teaches us that we cannot be trusted, that our bodies cannot be trusted. If we believe our bodies are actually our opponent and not our partner, we must outsource our decision making about how to feed our bodies, and often pay money for products, information, rules, or plans, which is why the diet and wellness industry is worth $70 billion a year. The other critical feature of intuitive eating is that the shape and size of our bodies is not entirely within our control, and does not need to be a deciding factor in how we eat. In fact, if we make our eating decisions based on a desire to change our appearance, we set ourselves up as opponents of our body, become more disconnected with our body and less attuned to our bodies needs. Intuitive eating is about trusting that our bodies will communicate with us if we are willing to listen, and we can best respond and meet those needs if we let go of the thin ideal and the desire to control our bodies according to that standard.

Q. What are the most common misconceptions you encounter about intuitive eating?

A. The most common misconception is that eating intuitively is equivalent to gorging on “junk” foods and being totally out of control, or alternatively, maybe it works for some people but for me, who has no willpower, I would only ever eat French fries and milkshakes and Snickers bars. When we first begin to let go of rigid food rules and the illusion of control they provide, we may feel a bit out of control, and that may feel scary, but with unconditional permission to eat any and all foods we choose to, we eventually habituate to the more palatable foods that used to be off limits, and they lose a lot of their power. Once that habituation takes place, our bodies naturally crave a variety of foods, including foods that are conventionally thought of as “healthy.” This allows us to eat foods we enjoy across the spectrum, moving away from binary thinking about “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, and prioritizing satisfaction and pleasure in all the foods we eat.

Q. What are some ways that intuitive eating can help students?

A. Intuitive eating offers lots of benefits for students. Because eating intuitively is responsive to the body’s signals of hunger and satiety, preferences, appetite, etc, the body is consistently well nourished, which allows the body and the brain to function optimally. Because a fraught relationship with food typically means constant preoccupation with food and eating, another benefit of eating intuitively is that it allows food to take up an appropriate, not excessive, amount of mental space, leaving plenty of room for studies and social life.

Q. What are some ways a grad student can find balance in their diet without it taking too much of their time or brain energy?

A. Prioritizing regular meals and snacks that include a combination of carbohydrate, protein, adding fruits and vegetables to a degree that is satisfying and comfortable, is a great way to achieve balance for busy grad students. Some degree of planning and prioritizing is necessary to achieve this consistently, but neglecting that will result in a chaotic and inconsistent food intake, which may jeopardize mental function and energy levels.

Q. How do you strike the balance between knowing what foods make you feel best and what you feel like you “should” be eating with all of the opportunities for eating junk food that college students are presented with?

A. When students give themselves unconditional permission to eat any and all foods, the body naturally craves balance and variety, so that one might enjoy food that would be considered “junk” but also will gravitate toward a variety of other foods across the nutritional spectrum. When we fret about trying to avoid those “junk” foods, our minds become preoccupied with those foods, increasing their appeal and our desire to eat them. That unconditional permission takes some of that assigned power away, neutralizing those foods to some degree. They are still highly palatable, and give us a more pleasurable response to eating them, but if they are morally neutral, we do not have that added compulsive desire to consume them that is triggered when they are “forbidden.”

Q. What advice would you give a grad student who is struggling to find a healthy balance with food?

A. Get clear on what is bothering you the most about food, or what the fear is. Usually there is a lack of trust that results in the struggle with food, specifically that we believe our bodies cannot be trusted. And it’s no wonder, we get this message from every direction, everywhere we go. So identifying the specific beliefs that we have around food and our bodies can help us know how to make shifts to challenge those beliefs. I also strongly encourage students (and everyone else!) who consume social media to curate their feeds to support that body trust, unfollowing accounts that encourage restriction or disordered behavior, and following accounts that embrace body diversity and body trust. It is well documented that social media can be a huge contributor to poor body image, disordered eating, and mental health disturbances, but it is possible to curate a social media experience that is supportive of healthy body image, balanced eating, and positive mental health.