Dear Mark: How to Stay Healthy in College

College students and healthy lifestyle. On the one hand it seems like the ultimate contradiction. Pizza boxes, Red Bull cans, Doritos bags, beer bottles, Captain Crunch at every cafeteria meal. They’re as much a cultural vision of college as John Belushi’s sweatshirt. If there were a Primal no man’s land, you’d think the residential campus experience would at least be a top contender. Nonetheless, college needn’t be the physical wasteland it’s made out to be. And, let’s be honest: most students do not really live/eat/drink this way. As many students exercise regularly and eat decently as send their bodies through the wringer during their college careers. Nonetheless, campus living is its own kind of existence, and it presents its own challenges for maintaining a Primal routine. Not surprisingly, I get emails from college readers asking for tips on how to live a healthy lifestyle. Here’s one:

I love your blog and try to stick to my own modified version of the blueprint whenever possible, but lately I’ve been finding it a lot harder. I just started undergrad, and besides having less free time, I’m finding it harder to eat primal foods and snacks in a dining hall. Any tips for college students on how to stay primal? Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks for all the great help!


This is an especially timely subject for me, since my daughter just started college this fall. She went armed with a few strategies that have served her well, and the transition has taught her to be flexible in making a healthy life for herself. With some inspiration from her and other friends’ experiences, here are some tips for our college crowd. As I always say, let’s break it down….

College Dining

The dining hall of course can be a blessing and a curse. You have ready access to a fairly wide variety of options, and (let’s face it) you don’t have to prepare anything yourself. Nonetheless, the majority of cafeteria food is decidedly un-Primal. You’ll clearly need to break from the typical patterns (like those eight glasses of milk so many athletes fill their trays with) and learn some strategic foraging techniques to scavenge the best in meats and veggies. (On a side note, you’ll actually be getting more of your money’s worth than a student who hits the cereal bins at every meal.)

Get the lay of the land.

Figure out what food lines/stations are the best sources for meats and veggies, your Primal staples of course. Of course the salad bar will be top on this list, and the main course offerings will usually include some kind of meat dish (which might need de-bunning or other adaptation). Is there a stir fry station? Soup counter? Sandwich section with meats you can mix in with a Primal salad? Learn to see the stations as less than meal offerings than ingredient sources for your own creative mixing (e.g. chicken from the stir fry station on a fresh salad) And don’t forget the vegetarian section. Although pasta, soy and rice usually reign supreme here, you can sometimes find a good vegetable stew or side dish. Get a sense of the weekly patterns in food offerings, and adjust your strategy and anticipated menu accordingly.

Use the suggestion box (or better yet get to know the director of food services).

Don’t be hesitant about lobbying food service with some of your ideas. They genuinely want to hear from students, and they’ll especially love getting health conscious suggestions. Granted, they have to keep the bottom line in mind, but they’ll likely at least work out some compromise offerings.

Get out and explore.

Some colleges offer partial board arrangements (so many meals a week) or use an account balance that students tap into for each visit to the cafeteria, campus coffee shop, student union “grill” or other campus outpost. This kind of flexibility can allow you to get some grub off campus when you need a break from the dining hall fare. (Probably any student, Primal or not, could agree with this.) Check out what the surrounding neighborhood has to offer for a quick bite, or hop on the bus and expand your horizons. Although it’s possible to find a good surprise or two at local burger joints, check out ethnic eateries, independent delis and the eclectic hole in the wall type diners. You’ll likely find more budget-conscious menus as well as varied food selections. Create your own collection of off-campus options that you can access when needed.

Keep your own stash.

It could be as simple as a tub of Primal protein bars for the early morning run to your 8:00 class, or it could mean skipping the meal plan entirely if you like to cook for yourself. Even if you don’t want to nix the cafeteria all together, keep some basics on hand like fresh fruit, nuts, nut butter, and eggs. I’d recommend having a good supplement on hand too. It can help cover you on compromised days and just add to your overall defenses against stress and the latest bug circulating among the campus population.

Preempt social temptation.

Thursday night pizza, weekend chips and beer, Sunday night pizza. Am I sensing a pattern here? Eat before you head out on the town or to the “gathering” in the next dorm over. Stash your own snack or play host yourself for a small group that doesn’t mind your Primal eccentricities. As for alcohol, of course there are more reasons than the Primal Blueprint to limit or abstain. Nonetheless, it’s not a bad reminder.

A few notes on other aspects of campus living…


Just about every campus has a decent gym that’s free to full-time students. Access isn’t an issue, but time can be. My daughter likes to go either in between classes in the afternoon (when she doesn’t feel she’ll be as productive studying) or early in the evening before she hits the books again. The key is to find times that consistently work for you and make the date. As busy as college can be, students are oftentimes derailed by the lack of schedule more than the actual lack of time itself. It’s too easy to keep putting things (like exercise) off because there’s so much “open” time. Make the gym (or local trail/bike path/climbing wall/etc.) a fixed part of your week. Nonetheless, make it fun too. Join an intramural sport or try out a campus yoga class. Enjoy working out as a break from the daily grind.


Just about every college student I’ve ever met is guilty on this count. Though you’re young, you’re still human like the rest of us. Staying up late to study, carouse or probe the meaning of existence will eventually catch up with you. (And, yes, I say this in part from personal experience.) Not only will you feel like crap physically, you’ll suffer cognitively. (So much for late night cramming.) Your brain ultimately needs sleep to function. Why would you starve it? During sleep your brain catalogs the information it’s received in a day (everything from Bio 101 lecture material to social interactions). It helps put together the big picture (“All right, maybe my roommate isn’t such an idiot.”) and frees up space for new information (“Onto the next chapter of organic chemistry.”). Of course, sleep is also crucial for your immune system. Do yourself a favor and go to sleep an hour earlier. (And try to do it in bed instead of slobbering all over your text books.) It might spare you five days of misery and two missed exams.


A friend of mine who works in student life at a nearby university absolutely dreads the month of March each year. The stress finally hits such a high point, she explains, that it’s like an all out campus melt down. Campus officials see a spike in roommate conflicts, residence write-ups, campus arrests, counseling usage and health clinic visits. The real need for spring break, she says, is to get everybody the hell out of the fish bowl for a week. (Thanksgiving break, she says, offers the same respite during fall semester.) A combination of academic anxiety, social tension, roommate issues, sleep deprivation and cabin fever is eventually too much. The wheels just come off the bus. Of course March and late November aren’t the only times stress reigns on college campuses. The key to keeping stress manageable is to maintain equilibrium as much as possible. Keep on top of your work, get enough rest, stay healthy and get off campus now and then. It’s a cycle you choose: procrastination leads to cramming, leads to poor sleep, leads to stress. Alternatively, keeping up allows for a manageable schedule with time for exercise and adequate sleep, which allows for a healthy and sustainable balance that will keep you sane while others are hanging from the rafters gnashing their teeth over midterms. Not exactly the kind of picture you see in the campus guidebooks now, is it?

Last but not least, and as you can imagine, I’d recommend picking up a copy of my new book, The Primal Blueprint, to any new college student. It contains the framework for a long and healthy life that I wish I would have had 40 years ago. I know many Mark’s Daily Apple readers feel likewise. (If only, right?…)

Let me know what you do/have done to balance a Primal lifestyle with student life. And good luck to all of you starting or continuing college this fall. Thanks as always for all your questions, and keep ‘em coming!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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