A healthy dietary intake is essential for proper brain functioning, and therefore is needed for optimal learning and academic performance (1). Yet, balancing a healthy lifestyle, studying, and a social life as a university student can seem impossible at times. After interviewing a few peers about their eating habits at university, I became aware of trends and barriers in regards to healthy eating as a student. Some students have no problem consuming a balanced diet, but others are challenged by it; due to the convenience of pre-made food, the lacking of cooking skills, and budget restrictions. With so many possibilities arising, I set out to find solutions to tackles these barriers and found why incorporating healthier food into your diet is crucial as a learning student.
PRE-MADE FOOD IS MORE CONVENIENT THAN HOME MADE MEALS
Grabbing a meal to go may seem like an easier option compared to cooking a healthy meal, especially if you are crunched for time between classes and studying. Yet, buying food on the go is associated with a poorer dietary intake (2). People who buy packaged foods tend to have higher intakes of fast food, soft drinks, total fat, and lower intakes of healthful foods (2), which is definitely not ideal for a student that needs plenty of energy to keep up with their stressful schedules. Whereas, people who eat at home in the absence of distractors, such as TV, and in the presence of others, are likely to eat more fruits and vegetable and overall healthier foods (3). Although food on the go may be convenient and tasteful, one study has shown that increased consumption of energy-dense, low-fibre, high-fat foods is associated with lower academic performance (4).
Preparing healthy meals ahead of time, such as at the beginning of the week, and refrigerating or freezing them is one way to combat not having to cook during busy times. For people who never have time to eat breakfast, try making overnight oats. Just stick oats with your favourite type of milk and fruit in the fridge overnight, and in the morning breakfast is ready when you are.
STUDENTS LACK COOKING EXPERIENCE
University is a challenging transition, and not knowing how to cook for yourself can prove to be even harder when trying to consume a healthy diet. One study found that consumption of fruits and vegetables by young adults is inversely related to personal barriers such as lacking cooking skills (5). Whether you are unsure of how to incorporate more vegetables or how to add protein, as a vegetarian/vegan, into your meals, attempting to cook a healthy, easy, and tasty recipe is a good place to start. By having a few go-to recipes that are healthy and easy to make, cooking at university will become that much easier. Although I personally had cooking experience before coming to university, I still stick to a few basic recipes that I think are delicious and that are an easy way to incorporate a nutritious meal into my day. A great way to find inspiration for meals is to follow healthy eating bloggers, Instagrams, or Youtube channels. Learning how to cook for yourself is a great skill to have, not only can you choose what is going into your body, studies have found that cooking your own meals is associated with a healthier dietary intake (6). Developing culinary skills at this age proves to be beneficial for you in the long term as well. In a ten year study it was found that having food preparation skills as a young adult predicted a healthier dietary intake during mid-to-late twenties (7). The increased diet quality after the 5 years included higher intakes of fruit, vegetables and dark green/orange vegetables, and less sugar-sweetened beverage and fast-food consumption (7).
HEALTHY FOODS ARE MORE EXPENSIVE
$10 smoothies may give healthy food a bad rep in terms of expenses, but most of the time buying pre-made food is more expensive than if the food was prepared at home. Many nutritious foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and plant sources of protein, such as legumes, can be bought for quite affordable prices. An abundance of vegetables and fruits in the diet decreases the chances of developing heart disease, certain types of cancers, and digestive problems (8) yet, many of the people I interviewed lacked an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables in their diets. Canada’s Food Guide recommends that female adults aged 19-50 should eat 7-8 servings, and males 8-10 servings, of fruits and vegetables in a day, with at least one dark green and one orange vegetable per day (9). At UBC there are some great farmers markets that sell produce at affordable prices, such as the UBC Farm Market and Roots of the Roof. By finding the right places to buy affordable healthy food, and minimizing the amount of pre-made food you buy, buying nutritious food can be more affordable than you think.
Another way to stay healthy at university is to engage in regular physical activity. One study showed that students who did regular physical activity improved their sleep quality and decreased their emotional exhaustion and overall fatigue from study related stress (10). Endless health benefits are associated with regular physical activity and healthy eating, so by setting aside time each day for your health as a student, you are already on the path to success.
With all of that said, it is important to remember that we are not super humans. Amongst the endless assignments, midterms, and Netflix binging, consuming a healthy diet 24/7 plus exercising regularly is nearly impossible. Treat yourself, but more importantly, take care of yourself.
By: Sydney Verburg
Final Edits by: Renée Chan, MS, MBA, RD, RDN, CDN
- A. Gutierrez J, Benna N, Fernandez K, Shanahan A, Cruz D. A correlational investigation of the relationships among nutrition-related attitudes and behavior, body mass, and learning and verbal memory performance in college students. New School Psychol Bull. 2013;10:37–43.
- Larson NI, Nelson M.C., Neumark-Sztainer D, Story R, Hannan P.J. Making time for meals: meal structure and associations with dietary intake in young adults. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009. 109, 72–79.
- Laska, M. N., Graham, D., Moe, S. G., Lytle, L., & Fulkerson, J. Situational characteristics of young adults’ eating occasions: A real-time data collection using personal digital assistants. Public Health Nutrition. 2011. 14(3), 472-479.
- Correa-Burrows, P., Burrows, R., Blanco, E., Reyes, M., & Gahagan, S. (2016). Nutritional quality of diet and academic performance in chilean students.Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 94(3), 185-192. doi:10.2471/BLT.15.161315
- Graham, D. J., Pelletier, J. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Lust, K., & Laska, M. N. (2013). Perceived Social-Ecological Factors Associated with Fruit and Vegetable Purchasing, Preparation, and Consumption among Young Adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(10), 1366-1374. DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2013.06.348
- Thorpe, M.G., Kestin, M., Riddell, L.J., Keast, R.S. and McNaughton, S.A. ‘Diet quality in young adults and its association with food-related behaviours’, Public Health Nutrition. 2014. 17(8), pp. 1767–1775
- Laska, M., Larson, N., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Story, M. (2012). Does involvement in food preparation track from adolescence to young adulthood and is it associated with better dietary quality? Findings from a 10-year longitudinal study. Public Health Nutrition, 15(7), 1150-1158. doi:10.1017/S1368980011003004
- Willett, Walter. Eat, drink, and be healthy: the Harvard Medical School guide to healthy eating. Simon and Schuster. 2011. 1, 20-21.
- Health Canada. (2011). Eating well with Canada’s food guide. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php
- de Vries, J., van Hooff, M., Geurts, S., & Kompier, M. Exercise as an intervention to reduce study-related fatigue among university students: A two-arm parallel randomized controlled trial. 2016. Plos One, 11(3).
About the Author:
Sydney Verburg is a second year student in the Food, Nutrition and Health Program at the University of British Columbia. As an aspiring Dietitian, she hope to use nutrition education in a valuable way to inspire people to live healthfully and to their fullest.