02/16/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2012

Healthy Eating for the College Student

By Maria Galindo, University of Florida

About one year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and of Health and Human services released new "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." Whether you've know about these for a while, or it's the first you hear of the new dietary guidelines, there's no time like the present to remind ourselves of the importance of improved nutrition and increased physical activity, both of which the guidelines stress.

The science-based guidelines emphasize eating less, increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, switching to low-fat or fat-free milk, avoiding high-sodium meals and drinking water instead of sugary drinks.

GatorWell Health Promotion Specialist Shannon Kirkpatrick recommended using the "plate method" to plan a healthier meal that follows the guidelines. "Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables and then divide the other half between a protein and some kind of grain, ideally a whole grain," suggested Kirkpatrick.

The dietary guidelines also highlight the importance of eating meals prepared at home."[Eating at home] gives you so much more control over what is going into your meals: you're not as tempted if there is a larger size, it's just so much easier to save it, and you can take advantage of working in some fruits and vegetables," explained Kirkpatrick.

For the busy college student, Kirkpatrick suggested preparing items such as soups and chilis during the weekend and storing them in the freezer for later use.

Zoe Siemienski, a junior at the University of Florida, finds cooking her own food simply troublesome. "I just don't like having to think about cooking," said Siemienski. "Planning meals is just too time consuming."

Kirkpatrick also suggests keeping an eye on the amount of added sugars on popular coffee drinks and replacing them with sugar-free versions or eliminating them completely."A latte or an iced latte made with low-fat or non-fat milk can be great. It's still a source of calcium and dairy, but, really, where the calories rack up is if you're adding the sugar-sweetened syrups, whipped cream or whole milk," said Kirkpatrick.

Pam Carey, a first-year student at the University of Florida, has made efforts to be informed about her caloric intake after hearing the "horror stories" of those who have experienced the "Freshman 15."

"I actually have started to look up the nutritional information for different restaurants like Starbucks online," said Carey. "I've found out it is not difficult to eat healthy on campus at all. There are healthy options at almost every location on campus."

Carey has started to look food as energy rather than enjoyment in her efforts to stay fit. "I know that fruits, vegetables, whole grains, water and natural foods have to be the best for you, and I want to provide my body with the fuel to get me through the day best. That is what food is, after all," said Carey.

Kirkpatrick also stressed the importance making healthy choices like those recommended in the dietary guidelines.

"Healthy habits are cumulative; if you form the habits early on, you are more likely to continue them throughout your life... The younger we are, the easier it is to form and change these habits," said Kirkpatrick."It's a great time to try new things and figure out what works well for you."