Sustaining a Low-Carb Diet in College Is Harder Than You’d Think

About a month ago, I went to the doctor with some serious stomach pain. It seemed like after every time I ate, my stomach would KILL, and I had no idea why. This happened sometimes at home, but seemed to be getting worse since I started eating here at school. At first, I thought it could be a dairy intolerance, since a lot of the foods offered in our dining halls are smothered with cheese or cream-based sauces. But much to my surprise, the problem was that I was eating a whole lot more carbs than I had before, and my body wasn’t able to digest them.

For those of you not familiar with anatomy, enzymes, or the digestive system in general (don’t worry, I’m not either), the enzyme that digests carbohydrates is called amylase. It is made in the pancreas and salivary glands and helps break down the sugars most commonly found in starchy carbs. Apparently, after a simple blood test, the doctor discovered that my body produces significantly less amylase than the average person. Since there’s really no way to fix it, we decided that I was going to try to cut starchy carbs and processed foods out of my diet and see if that helped my pain. 

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Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

Like I mentioned before, I was eating a lot more carbs here at school than I did at home. Most of that can be attributed to the offerings in the dining halls. Every single day, there are a variety of pasta, sandwich, and dessert options available. In addition, basically every grab-and-go option included frozen dinners or sandwiches, which are swarming with starchy carbs. With the ease of access and variety of high-carb options, they were an easy choice when there wasn’t much else to eat.

The first step to eating low-carb is understanding what I can eat. Basically, I can eat meat, veggies, fish, eggs, fruit, and high-fat dairy products. I also need to make sure that I am taking in more healthy fats than usual, since my energy now comes from fats instead of carbohydrates.

What I can’t eat are foods high in sugar, pasta, bread, potatoes, artificial sweeteners, and highly processed foods. Those highly processed foods are really what gets me in the dining hall. It’s nearly impossible to feed thousands of college students every single day using entirely fresh ingredients, so a lot of our food is highly processed and mass-produced, making it really hard to find low carb options.

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Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Navigating the dining hall has become a strategic game for me. Sometimes, it involves seeing if I can type “how many carbs are in chicken strips” into Google before I get to the front of the line. But more importantly, it involves making sure my plate is full of the correct nutrients.

I start off with protein, which is often a chicken breast or burger patty with no bun. Then, I check the daily vegetable offerings. Usually I can find something that looks decent enough to take up half my plate. If I don’t feel like I’m getting enough protein, sometimes I’ll grab a bowl of cottage cheese. For dessert, I’ll check the daily fruit offerings.

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Processed with VSCO with m5 preset

When it comes to eating out, it’s surprisingly easy to make things low-carb. Packing a Chipotle bowl with meat and veggies and cutting out the rice is a great option. Jimmy Johns makes all their sandwiches available as lettuce wraps. Most restaurants have salads on the menu, to which you can usually add chicken for protein. And while it may be a little harder to eat, any kind of burger or sandwich can be eaten without the bread.

Eating like this seems fairly easy, but it’s actually way harder than you’d think. Watching my friends order pizza on a Saturday night is no fun when you know you can’t participate. Passing up the mini corn dogs in the dining hall takes WAY more will power than I’ve ever had to exercise. And finally, my taste buds just miss pasta.

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It’s not all bad, though. I have started to feel much better than I did before. I also keep an emergency dark chocolate bar in my backpack in case I need to break off a piece to keep myself sane. Not very low in carbs—but you win some, you lose some. I’m hoping that after a while, this will become a regular part of my lifestyle.

In addition, the dining halls are holding me back quite a bit. Once I have my own kitchen and a grocery store in close proximity, I will be able to make low-carb foods on my own. But until then, I’m stuck zig-zagging through the dining hall and reaching for my stash of emergency chocolate to get me through this journey. Oh, and sometimes indulging on my favorite carbs because f*ck it.

This post was adapted from an article I wrote for Spoon University. Check out more of my articles for Spoon here.

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