In college, students stress about more than just grades—they worry about their eating habits as well. Students say time, money and access to a kitchen influence their diets, and decisions based on these three reasons often lead to unhealthy lifestyles.
“Between the stress of classes and work, I don’t have the time or motivation to keep up with a balanced diet,” said Christina Edwards, 21, a senior art major.
Edwards said her diet changed when she started her college journey living in a residence hall. No longer eating home cooked meals, her diet turned into eating whatever she could grab and run out the door with. Edwards said her diet was shaped by the fact she lacked funds, a kitchen area to cook in and time to cook.
“It was so much more convenient to make a microwave meal in my room rather than going to the communal kitchen and fighting for a time to actually cook,” Edwards said.
Now living off-campus, Edwards said her diet has improved slightly. She’s able to make healthier purchases and has the space in her apartment to cook meals. Even though she doesn’t always cook, she chooses healthier microwavable options.
“I try to make sure I buy less treats when I grocery shop,” Edwards said. “Luckily, I’m a person who loves fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, so when I grocery shop now I’ve got a good bit of everything.”
To stay healthy in college is possible as long as students make the correct choices and prioritize, said Rachel Harrington, assistant professor in the family and consumer sciences department. Harrington is currently working on her dissertation about college students’ diets.
The choice made by a student affects the student’s health, Harrington said. For the most part, students eat foods based on decisions on what is available, what they like and what they can afford, Harrington said. Students often turn to “comfort foods” or foods they are used to consuming, such as what is offered at the pizza and pasta lines in upstairs Powell, but they could choose healthier alternatives. For example, students could eat from the salad buffet one day then alternate to pizza the next, Harrington said.
“Students may feel as though they don’t have a choice with what the school serves, but it doesn’t matter what the school serves,” Harrington said. “What matters is the choice students make when it comes to eating. Even if the university isn’t serving something considered healthy, a student has to make the best decision.”
Christian Marson, 21, senior criminal justice major, said when he got to college he stopped doing sports, which ultimately affected his diet.
“I no longer needed an extremely strict diet, which meant I frequented the Powell pizza line a little too much,” Marson said.
Marson was an athlete in high school and had a rigorous exercise routine and strict diet. Despite the changes, he still considers himself someone who is moderately healthy. He tries his best to “eat clean” by avoiding junk foods and exercising regularly. He added that the stresses of school, especially with his class schedules, only hinders his desire to be a healthy person.
“My sleep schedule and class schedule often make it hard to make healthy decisions and exercise as many times a week as I would like to,” Marson said.
Trying to balance events and time conflicts are something that will always be a part of life even after college, Harrington said.
“It is essential students prioritize and find what is important to make sure they maintain a healthy lifestyle, especially since eating is vital to a student’s health,” Harrington said. “There is no ideal time to eat, but the most important thing is to never skip is breakfast. Skipping breakfast leads to a slow metabolic rate because the brain thinks the body is still resting.”
Harrington added that on the other hand, eating late at night only affects the body negatively, especially if the person is going to sleep immediately after eating. The body won’t have time to digest the food and use the calories if the person isn’t active late at night.
“Food is fun,” Harrington said. “Make it a priority.”
Combined with time and choice issues, students are learning to be self-sufficient for the first time, which leads to poor food decisions. Harrington said other factors which influence a student’s diet include alcohol consumption, caffeine intake, adjusting to being away from parents, peer pressure, lack of health education and exercise.
“You’re only going to do well academically if you’re healthy,” Harrington said.