University students are frequently chastised for eating poorly. Is the stereotype of a bad diet, however, a thing of the past?
Students have a reputation for eating nothing but pasta and baked beans on toast (which is actually quite healthy for us), but there is much more to students’ diets.
According to one survey, one in every ten students in the United Kingdom is a vegetarian, which is twice as many as the general population. Diets low or no in meat have been linked to health benefits, though the overall healthfulness of a vegetarian diet is dependent on the foods eaten in place of the meat. According to the same survey, one-quarter of students eat convenience foods on a daily or weekly basis.
Another study found that only one in every five students has “healthy eating habits.” This includes limiting snacking, eating little fast food, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Researchers discovered that students are more likely to gain weight than people their age who do not attend university.
“The research shows that generally students don’t eat very healthily,” says Martin Caraher, professor emeritus of food and health policy at City, University of London.
On the plus side, students are drinking less alcohol than they were ten years ago, according to John Holmes, professor of alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. This is especially encouraging because evidence suggests that we develop and maintain our drinking habits as young adults, and that the risks for certain diseases, such as liver disease, heart disease, and some types of cancer (including breast, bowel, and throat cancer), increase with the amount we drink over our lifetime, according to Holmes.
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According to research, students’ drinking habits can also affect their diets; they are more likely to eat after drinking alcohol, and they are more likely to eat calorific foods high in salt and sugar. This behaviour is perpetuated by the false belief that you have to eat something alongside drinking alcohol to help “soak up the alcohol”, says Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor of community health and health behaviour at the University at Buffalo in New York.
“If someone is out drinking, they are not going to look for healthy alternatives,” she says. “Nor do many late-night bars or restaurants have many healthy options, particularly in student areas.” Kruger polled over 250 students and discovered that they, too, do not make healthy food choices the day after drinking. While there is no data, Kruger speculates that it could be because alcohol dehydrates you, and the body craves salty foods to get you to drink more water.
“Also, when you don’t get enough sleep, your cognition suffers,” she adds. “Alcohol causes poor decision-making because it lowers inhibitions.”
There are a few other reasons, researchers speculate, why students might not eat so healthily.
“There are so many variables, such as their environment, campus dining settings, and we also see differences in how food is provided on campuses in different countries,” says Giovanni Sogari, assistant professor of consumer behaviour at Italy’s University of Parma.
His 2018 research discovered that students in Italy face numerous barriers to eating a varied and balanced diet, including a lack of healthy food and time to prepare foods.
I’ve been teaching medical students for 26 years. When I first started, they knew nothing about nutrition, and now they’re much more savvy – Annie Anderson
According to Dina Nikolaou, research fellow in public health nutrition at the University of Greenwich in London, students who are committed to eating healthily devote a significant amount of time to planning ahead.
“Having a healthy diet takes more effort for students,” she says. “Trying to navigate planning and shopping means that even those with the best intentions occasionally succumb to ready meals.”
Furthermore, having the knowledge and skills necessary to prepare meals from basic ingredients generally leads to a healthier diet. However, one study published last year discovered that only 47% of 200 students from two UK universities had a good level of nutrition knowledge. Even those 47% aren’t guaranteed to put their knowledge to use on a regular basis..
“For the past 26 years, I’ve been teaching medical students. They knew nothing about nutrition when I first started, but they’ve come a long way since then “Annie Anderson, professor of population health and genomics at London’s University of Greenwich, agrees. “However, this does not imply that it is reflected in their behaviour; there is a gap between knowledge and practise.”
Some students say their lack of budget is a reason for not eating more healthily. A According to a recent survey, nearly half of students are switching to supermarket-owned brands, and two in five are buying fewer takeaways as a result of the cost of living crisis. Budget constraints, however, do not always prevent people from eating a nutritious diet, according to Jacob Hamilton, a dietetics student at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.
Earlier this year, Hamilton calculated the costs of various food items from a UK budget supermarket and discovered that a balanced diet of 2000kcal per day can be achieved for as little as £10 ($12) per week.
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