Diet is often an overlooked health issue for students, but one that is very important. For many students, moving away from home to campus can have a detrimental impact on their nutrition. Below I will talk through what to avoid, and what to try to stick with in terms of making sure you eat well and maintain a healthier lifestyle.
Doing it wrong
For some students during Freshers’ the appeal of a 2 for 1 offer on kebabs, pizzas, and other takeaways can be very appealing. For others, it may be the first time they have had to cook a meal from scratch; so a ready meal or Super Noodles may be very convenient. However, takeaways and microwave meals are not generally the best for long-term health. That’s not to say, that the occasional microwave meal will be a problem, but they do tend to have less nutritional content, with little in the range of vitamins and minerals, and low in fibre, and tend to be higher in salt, sugars, and fats. It’s all about getting the balance right.
Poor nutrition can have a detrimental impact on your mood, your ability to concentrate, becoming overweight and obese (or underweight), impact on your sleep, and in worse case scenarios can lead to non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, heart attacks, and cancers.
In their paper, Tanton et al, (2015) reported that the average student in the UK eats around 3 portions of fruit and veg per day when the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 5 portions. They also commented on the high incidence of eating convenient meals (fast food, takeaways, etc.) that students have across the globe and the impact this has on their minds and body. You can read their full paper here.
A good diet is one that includes high fibre, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, good hydration (but avoiding too much alcohol, or avoid it altogether), starchy carbohydrates (such as bread, potatoes, and cereals – and where possible go for wholegrain), and moderate amounts of protein (such as fish, lean meat, or nuts/lentils), and limiting the number of sugars and fats. A balanced diet is the recommended type of diet.
Getting it right
Being a student, usually means money will be tight, so some top tips for making your money go further include, buying fruit and veg when in season (buying asparagus from South America in winter, will cost a lot more than locally grown asparagus in April and May for example, plus the taste will be affected as the natural sugars turn starchy). Local markets usually will sell fruit and veg cheaper than supermarkets, but if you don’t have a market near you, opt for cheaper supermarkets.
Breakfast is often the first thing that gets neglected. Having a late night with your mates, means having a snooze in the morning, and then rushing to get to lectures or placement on time, but then often leads to snacking on crisps and chocolate to keep you going throughout the morning until lunch. But a good breakfast will keep you going. Wholegrain toast with nut butter (such as peanut or cashew nut) with a small glass of fresh fruit juice (such as orange, apple or grapefruit) is healthy and relatively quick to prepare, and eat. If you have a little more time, then porridge made with low-fat milk (dairy or vegetarian) is a very healthy choice. If you want to be prepared, then a Bircher style muesli is quick to put together, and can be left overnight in the fridge ready for the morning, and can be eaten on the go if you do wake up a little later than expected. I’ll post my Bircher recipe another time but search online for recipes as they are super easy to make and very good for you.
Lunches tend to be cheaper if you make them at home and bring them to campus. There are now microwaves dotted around campus if you want to reheat some stew, curry, etc. that you may have made at home. Alternatively, you can bring in healthy pasta or couscous salads, or a sandwich. If you live close to, or on campus, a quick and easy lunch is crushed avocado on wholegrain toast, with a poached egg (poaching an egg is a lot simpler than many people realise). If you decide to eat in one of the University’s eateries, then consider going for the healthier options. A baked potato with baked beans or chilli is pretty healthy, and will probably keep you going until dinner in the evening. Or pasta, noodle or rice dish with plenty of vegetables will also be a good option.
Sometimes the idea of cooking an evening meal after a day of lectures or placement can seem like a laborious job. Most students live with others; be it their family, or other students. Why not take it in turns to cook for each other, or cook together and divvy up the tasks. Try not to eat too late, as this will impact on your sleep. Where possible, cook something that can also be frozen and reheated at a later date; so make double, eat one portion and freeze the other. Pasta and simple sauces are relatively easy to learn, and often some of the quickest meals to cook. Think about healthier alternatives to chips, such as oven-baked potato wedges, and instead of salt, think of other seasonings such as herbs. Curries, stews, and tangines are pretty good, as most require some time to prepare (e.g. chopping up the veg and protein), but can more often than not, be left to cook, whilst you do some revision or essay writing.
Keeping a good level of hydration is important. Most adults will require around 1.5 to 2.0 litres of non-alcoholic drinks per day. Water is best, but sugar-free drinks are also good. Be mindful of drinking fresh fruit juices, they are good (with vitamins and minerals), but they are high in natural sugars. Dehydration leads to headaches and poor concentration, which is never good when you need to concentrate in your lectures. Also be mindful of drinks high in caffeine such as coffee, tea, some soft drinks and some energy drinks, as this can have an adverse effect on your sleep. Drinking alcohol in moderation should also be advised. Avoiding alcohol altogether is great, but if you do like to drink beer/cider/wine/spirits etc., then try to stick within the health recommendations to reduce the risk of alcohol-related illnesses.
Reference: Jina Tanton, Lorna J. Dodd, Lorayne Woodfield, and Mzwandile Mabhala, “Eating Behaviours of British University Students: A Cluster Analysis on a Neglected Issue,” Advances in Preventive Medicine, vol. 2015, Article ID 639239, 8 pages, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/639239.