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Healthy Diet Can Help Students Get Through Stressful Times

“Free Pizza!”

Sound familiar? College students will find this everywhere once enrolled at a university. While organizations use it to get students to come to their events hoping to get a good turnout (and it probably works), it neglects to advocate positive nutrition habits for college students. As college is a life-changing experience, many choices and challenges tag along.

Shifting to a more stressful lifestyle, every student deals with it differently, depending on the degree of the shift in his or her life. The effects of a college lifestyle are different for every person. Professor Kirsten Straughan, Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of the Nutrition Science Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains that research shows that students are less active upon entering college. “A lot of students that were very active in high school, unless they are student athletes in college, cease their activity,” says Professor Straughan. She believes that the most common poor eating habits of college students are skipping meals and eating out a lot.

College Experience #1

Omar Khalifeh, a graduate student in electrical engineering at UIC, explains a drastic change. When moving out of his family home and moving into an apartment with a roommate, who is also a college student, eating out became a frequent resource to getting a quick and easy meal. “I definitely gained weight from eating fast food so often and I felt terrible. I couldn’t focus when I tried to study,” said Khalifeh.

Lots of college campuses are “food deserts,” meaning you cannot find grocery stores nearby. This limits students who live on or near college campuses because fast food from restaurants becomes the easy route. “Overeating on very high-fat, high-calorie foods that are low in nutrients results in students gaining weight,” says Professor Straughan. College students end up going to fast food restaurants, which are five minutes away, as opposed to grocery stores, which are 20 minutes away.

Khalifeh explains how his first few months were dedicated to fast-food restaurants, but after discovering the effects that fast food had on his ability to focus and study, he made drastic changes in his diet. “Me and my roommate started cooking twice a week. We’d make enough food to last us for a couple days every time we cooked,” he said.

Although he had little time to dedicate to cooking, he managed to alter his diet to a healthier one. This little change in turn made a big difference in his lifestyle. It helped him focus better for his classes and research. It also motivated him to start going to the gym on a daily basis. Khalifeh also claims that he learned how to cook from this experience, “I even started calling my mom to ask for her recipes,” he said.

College Experience #2

Stress affects every person differently. While some students may overindulge during midterms and final exams, some students either lose their appetite or forget to eat. UIC student Danyah Subei, a third-year industrial design major, went from living with her family to living alone with her brother, also a UIC student, upon entering college. “It was a big change. I went from living with a big family and my mom would always make home-cooked meals,” said Subei. She says she lost weight since entering college, “I forget to eat, especially during midterms and finals because I’m constantly thinking about the stress I have over my head,” she said. Subie also explained how she still struggles from this during the semester and does not know how to overcome it.

Professor Straughan suggests in a case such as Subei’s that one be aware of the fact that they are like this, and to focus on small, frequent meals. Also, she advises “to have an idea in mind about a go-to food like apples with peanut butter, clementines, or peanuts.” This way one can make it a goal to have such snacks twice a day, and maintain structure.

College Experience #3

Another UIC student, Shivani Patel, also had a similar experience to Subei in that she lost weight upon entering college. But she is like Khalifeh because she took notice of her changing habits and altered them for the better in order to maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Her freshman year at UIC caused her eating habits to drastically change. She would eat at random times of the day and would eat anything that came her way, whether it be healthy or not. She also stopped exercising like she used to in high school. This caused her to lose an increasing amount of weight. “I lost all of my good habits of working out and eating during a specific time of day because I would give myself the excuse of studying,” admits Patel.

Noticing serious change in her college routine within her first year of college, Patel realized that she needed to change her habits. “Right when sophomore year started, I scheduled a plan to have three to four meals a day and go to the gym three to four times a week. And I planned to end my day with a glass of milk before I got to bed,” says Patel.

College Experience #4

Andrea Rogers, a UIC undergraduate, noticed that she started eating dinner later at night around 9pm-10pm. “I eat out more so for dinner sometimes just because sometimes I get home from school and work and don’t feel like cooking,” explains Rogers. She also explains how it is difficult to find time to work out because she works two jobs, is a full time student, and is raising a family, though she admits that these keep her “from getting too out of shape.”

Once she entered college she still ate mostly the same foods she used to before college, yet she admits that although she’s not the worst eater, she’s not the best.  As a mother, Rogers tries her best to keep a healthy diet for herself and her family, especially making sure to eat breakfast. But some foods, she says, she will never give up, like brownies.

The Solution

A growing problem that can affect college students’ eating habits is that the boundaries of being “full” overtime are becoming more blurred. You might have an appetite for something, but you’re not necessarily hungry. People should get in touch with satiety, the state of satisfying one’s hunger.

The reason why people are concerned for young adults to maintain a nutritious, healthy diet and lifestyle is because it really is important. It is important for every person to establish a healthy body during his or her early stages in life. Establishing this in one’s college years is crucial, as it forms the foundation of the body for the rest of one’s life. For example, people reach their maximum bone density in their early twenties—during the time of a typical college experience. Thus, it is crucial that college students intake a sufficient amount of nutrients as well as exercise often so they can build up their maximum bone density. This is essential because after they reach their optimal bone density, it gradually decreases as age increases.

Because college life comes at this vital stage of a person’s life it makes it difficult to maintain a healthy nutritious diet. Here are some easy, helpful tips that nutrition professionals suggest for college students:

Rules #1            DON’T SKIP MEALS (especially breakfast)—Skipping meals might make you feel weak and have a hard time focusing, it also might make you choose bad food choices and make you gain weight over time.

Rule #2            PLAN YOUR MEALS OUT— if you know you’ll be in class all day, pack a lunch or some snacks. Keep snacks available in your house: granola bars, oatmeal, almonds, etc.

Rule #3            DRINK LOTS OF WATER—Research shows that dehydration may lead to short-term memory loss and decreased attention span.

Rule #4            MOVE MORE —Upon entering college students tend to eat more and move less. Plan exercise into your schedule.

Rule #5            DON’T EAT OUT SO OFTEN—this might be the hardest thing. Deal with it.

Rule #5            VISIT – it has a page dedicated to helping college students improve themselves—food-wise, exercise-wise, etc.



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