Dance Health

Avoiding Excess Weight Gain In College

college weight gain

College is hard. Dance is hard. Maintaining a healthy weight doesn’t have to be hard with the right choices. I know firsthand about the challenges of weight management in college. The truth is that healthy lifestyles take time, energy, thoughtful choices and planning. I know time feels crunched, I know it’s easy to grab a couple of quick slices of pizza, I know it’s easy to drink too much, I know it’s easy to get frustrated or want to quit when you are routinely bombarded with images or posts about everyone else’s seemingly perfect life, but we are dancers. We didn’t choose the easy path. If you had wanted an easy major you would have chosen astrophysics instead of dance. So, dancers, let’s talk about what it’s going to take to maintain your instrument.

Watch portions

Eating out or at a dining hall can often mean excessive portions. Leave a little on your plate at each meal. Eat two-thirds of your food and wait 15-20 minutes to check in with your body’s hunger cues. Your brain takes that much time to get the message that the stomach is full. Being a dancer means listening to and honoring your body. If your body is full, it’s okay to toss that extra portion.

Campus dining

Campus dining is changing for the better at most schools, but it still always comes down to personal responsibility to make healthy choices and create an environment around you and where you live that makes the healthy choice the easy choice.

  • Fill 2/3 of your plate at the salad bar with greens, veggies, legumes and whole grains, and eat that first.
  • Eat with a friend who is also trying to make healthy choices (not that friend who is on the latest fad diet).
  • See if they have a soup option.
  • Choose the vegetarian option.
  • Avoid red meat, bacon and hot dogs (yes, at tailgate parties, too).
  • If you must do fast food, choose a vegetarian option because cheap meat is raised with antibiotics and hormones, which are linked to weight gain in humans. A kid’s sized veggie burrito is a better choice than a burger.
  • Avoid cream sauces, heavy dressings, cheese toppings, sour cream and fried foods. (You knew that one didn’t you?)
  • Drink water with meals.
  • Grab a piece of fruit with each meal.
  • Keep a hanging basket of fruit in your dorm room.
  • Keep healthy but quick microwavable meals in your dorm like the McDougall’s Right Foods brand. Or just make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
  • Have smart snacks on hand for late night studying like light popcorn, grapes, dried fruit, whole grain crackers, Kind bars, rice cakes and hummus.
  • Don’t keep sweets in your room. Occasional treats are okay, but make them harder to access. For example, take a walk to get a kiddy cup of ice cream.

Stress eating and busy lifestyles

It’s no secret that stress, anxiety and depression wreak havoc on even the most dedicated healthy eater. Micky Sharma, director of Counseling and Consultation Services at Ohio State University, states that “students in this generation are working and growing up in a very fast-paced society” (1). This fast-paced society places a higher value on grabbing something quick rather than eating something healthy. Since the quick choice isn’t always the right choice, take a look at your schedule and make time for eating. You are fueling your instrument — isn’t that worth the extra 10-15 minutes? Consider investing in a mini-blender for quick green smoothies or a mini-electric crock pot and cook up a ½ cup beans, veggie broth and frozen veggies while you are at class. Come back to a ready made (and cheap) meal.  

Be active…by any means necessary

Professional level dancers know the importance of cross-training. Get to your school’s Athletic Center for swimming, weights or elliptical. No time? Take the stairs, walk the long way to class, and do 15 sit-ups every time you leave your dorm room. Do arm reps with those heavy text books.

Try something new

College is a great time to be open to new and different foods and ways of eating. Each week, challenge yourself to try something new, experiment with new flavors, and be open to the foods and traditions of other cultures. Your taste buds and preferences change and develop over time. If you are used to boring old meat and potatoes, you can actually train your body to enjoy dark greens and new vivid flavors.  

Real lasting changes take thoughtful work, but it’s worth it.

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD, Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles.

Emily Harrison
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD 
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at


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