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Nutrition Made Easy For Busy People

Helping Them Survive a Student Diet – Food for Thought for First-Termers

Over the next few weeks, a lot of young people will be packing their bags and heading off for their first term at university. With so many exciting new things to think about, it’s fairly common for it to fall apart a bit on the nutrition front, and this can have consequences for their health and well-being, as well as directly affecting their ability to make the most of their new life. For many years, without even thinking about it, they will have been eating a regular, balanced diet, carefully prepared by a loving parent and now they have to manage for themselves. Anyone who’s the regular cook in the household will know that this doesn’t happen by accident and that it takes time and thoughtful planning.

A study of students in Greece[1] showed that their diet changed significantly once they left for university: levels of fresh fruit and vegetables dropped dramatically and there was a significant increase in sugar, wine, alcohol and fast-food. Sounds familiar? This is a pattern that is being replicated all over the UK by first-year students who are far too busy enjoying their new-found freedom and/or don’t even know where to start when it comes to planning a balanced, healthy diet.

Poor nutrition can affect skin health, digestion, sleep, energy levels and weight, to name but a few and certain nutrient deficiencies may cause specific issues such as headaches and migraines or low mood. A common theme running through the majority of my 20-something clients is that their symptoms started soon after they left home and began ‘catering’ for themselves.

So here are a few tips to pass on to your nearest and dearest to make sure they remain healthy and energised throughout the term.

1.    Watch Out For Weight-gain
With the change in routine and so many different things to think about, some students find they start to put on weight in their first term. Sugar is the worst culprit when it comes to weight-gain, and there are a lot of hidden sugars lurking around student life. Alcohol is one of the biggest and there are so many great parties to go to! The problem is that a pint of lager contains roughly 3 teaspoons of sugar and a large glass of rosé or white wine contains 2-3 teaspoons of sugar. Even if you’re not ‘binge drinking’, a few of these every day can really start to pile the pounds on.

Pasta and toast are two student staples, and can be very practical for a quick meal when you’re on the run. But if you’re eating them a lot and they’re in the refined form of white bread or white pasta, then the body will treat them as sugar and burn through them very quickly. You’ll soon be hungry for more and this will lead to regular snacking. Swapping to wholemeal bread and whole-wheat pasta adds fibre to your diet, which will help you achieve sustained energy levels and stay fuller for longer.

 2.    Don’t forget Protein
Protein is very important for neurotransmitter function, so if you’re not eating enough quality protein, you may find yourself struggling with low mood. That’s definitely something to avoid, especially if you’re already feeling slightly homesick. Lack of protein can also affect your concentration and focus, making it a lot harder to keep awake during lectures. Quality protein comes in all sorts of forms, not just meat and fish, but also eggs, lentils, chickpeas, beans, nuts and seeds, for example.

 Make sure you don’t fall into the classic trap of eating pasta with cheese or pasta with tomato sauce all the time, as you’ll soon be running low on key nutrients, so think about adding in some tuna or chicken, for example. Try adding some pumpkin seeds into your breakfast cereal for a protein boost, which provides a really good start to the day. Before you leave home, you could even practice a few recipes for simple meals like chilli con carne (beans and meat – excellent!), lentil curry, or spaghetti Bolognese. These are easy, cheap and very sociable dishes to share with friends.

 3.    Focus on B vitamins
To make the most of your new life, you’re likely to need plenty of energy. B vitamins act as vital links in the chain of energy production, and if they’re low, then you’ll be feeling low. Deficiency in B vitamins can cause a number of symptoms, such as fatigue, low mood, headaches and migraine, irritability, anxiety, cramps and eczema. Dietary deficiency is one obvious reason for low levels of B vitamins, but they can also be depleted by alcohol, stress and the oral contraceptive pill.

 Vegetables are great sources of many of the different B vitamins that you need, but watch out how you cook them, as B vitamins are water-soluble, which means that you can boil a lot of the goodness away. If you don’t have a steamer, then you could try raw vegetables in salads or veg sticks as snacks with hummus or guacamole. Alternatively, you could experiment with soups or stews, as these are easy to cook, a great way to include lots of different vegetables and you’ll get the benefit of the B vitamins in the juice

 4.    Stay hydrated
Dehydration can result in a lot of unpleasant symptoms such as dry skin and eczema, low energy, constipation and it may cause kidney infections. Studies have also shown that being dehydrated by just 2% can impair concentration[2], which you definitely don’t need when you’re trying to get to grips with your new course.

 Make sure you’re having the equivalent of roughly 6-8 glasses of water per day. Tea, coffee and caffeinated soft drinks don’t count, as these have a diuretic effect. If you find it hard to drink water, then try adding a cordial like lime or elderflower to liven it up. Herbal tea or green tea is another good option, and bear in mind that fruit and vegetables contain lots of water, so that can help too.

Of course, this is a lot for them to think about when they already have so much on their minds. You’ll probably have a good idea what their dietary weak points are likely to be, so you could try helping them to focus on just one or two of the more relevant tips. With positive encouragement and a little targeted nutritional advice, you’ll be helping them to do their best, stay well and have fun. Good luck!

For handy advice on smart food choices when you’re out and about, pick up a copy of
The Right Bite (£6.99).

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[1] Papadeki A et al (2007) Eating Habits of University Students Eating at or Away From Home. Appetite 49: 169-176

[2] Adan A (2012) Cognitive Performance and Dehydration. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 31: 71-8