Eating healthy as a student – Is it possible? Mi Goreng, cereal, bread, pasta, takeaway, alcohol – these have long been staples of a student diet. They are a quick and easy option for the time poor or those unmotivated to cook (plus they don’t create much washing up) but the key word is – they are cheap.
It is no secret that these foods alone are not going to provide optimal nutrition and yes, this as well will affect academic performance, if even slightly. This is not something that likely concerns students or that many consider but your body and brain does not function at its peak without the appropriate food to fuel it. Just as a lack of sleep will also affect performance.
So the question is … can students stick to a budget and still make healthy choices? Choices that are also relatively time efficient? The short answer is yes. It can be done but unfortunately it will involve some planning before it becomes second nature.
The ‘freshman 15’
It is no wonder that the foods described above often lead to the ‘freshman 15’ – a common expression indicating a gain of approximately 15 pounds, experienced by students in their first year of university (though recent studies have shown that a gain of 7 pounds on average may be more accurate). Sometimes referred to as ‘the fresher five’ in Australia, a gain of 5kg.
This is mainly due to the sharp increase in alcohol consumption, over consumption of carbohydrate rich foods and making high fat and high sugar selections. After all, alcohol and fatty/ salty foods generally go hand in hand. Not only this but factors like sleep deprivation and stress also lead to overeating.
Keep in mind; you do not have to be skin and bone to be malnourished, quite the contrary in fact. An individual can become overweight and still be malnourished. For example, if the most variety an person gets in their diet is swapping between different flavours of chocolate and getting their only fruit from ‘fruit and nut’, they will gain weight and still be malnourished.
Tips for eating healthy
1. Organise and prepare
This is essential to making a healthy diet work. It may seem like a hassle at first but it will become easy once you are used to the types of foods to buy and you have a few basic recipes down pat. It will also help you make nutritious selections whilst being mindful of money – healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive, a common misconception. Tips to planning:
- Plan your meals in advance, enough to last you until your next shopping trip – There are hundreds of healthy and quick recipes that can be found online. This may involve sitting down and planning meals with your housemates if you share the cooking.
- Write a shopping list of the ingredients you need before you go so you don’t waste money on unnecessary/ unhealthy foods e.g. soft drink, chips, two minute noodles.
- Plan for a variety of meals to avoid repetition and hence the temptation to stray back to 2 minute noodles.
- Pay attention to how many serves a recipe makes. You may be able to extend a dish over a couple of meals (if you like left overs for lunch or dinner).
- Freeze left overs for occasions where you have limited time. This will mean a healthy meal is always at hand and will eliminate the need for takeaway. It also allows more variety during the week.
See my blog ‘healthy meal tips for students’ for more ideas on basic, nutritious meals that can be thrown together.
2. Eating healthy on a budget
The following tips will help you stick to a budget whilst shopping for your healthier alternatives:
- Cook in bulk so you can store portions in the fridge or freezer to eat for future lunches or dinners. This way you can ensure you use all of the ingredients you have purchased instead of having left overs that will perish.
- Buying in bulk is also cheaper (especially if these items are on special). Freeze food that won’t have its quality jeopardised if it is frozen and use it in future recipes, as needed. For example, bread can be frozen for a couple of months and meat can be split in to meal size portions and frozen.
- Don’t buy more than you need if you are not storing the leftovers afterwards. If you are going to store portions for future meals, ensure you have enough storage space e.g. in the freezer so no food is wasted.
- Incorporate lentils, beans and lots of vegetables in to each meal. These items will really bulk up a dish, making it more filling and able to go much further.
- By adding beans and lentils (which are relatively cheap), you can reduce the portion of meat in your meal which is generally the most expensive part. Lentils and beans are also a good source of protein!
- Use less expensive meat in stews, casseroles and curries and save the more expensive lean meat for other dishes. These type of dishes are great for adding loads of vegetables and lentils to and the slow cooking will soften the meat. Always trim visible fat off meat.
- Reduce your intake of takeaway food and restaurant meals. Sometimes they seem like a cheap option but in reality, you could cook a dish that will stretch over a few meals for the same price as one takeaway meal.
- Additionally, they are higher in fat, sugar and salt and will leave you hungry just a couple of hours later.
- Limit your intake of nutritionally void food e.g. lollies, energy drinks and soft drink. If these are regular purchases, the cost can really add up at a minimum of a couple of dollars each.
- Reduce your alcohol intake. Alcohol is expensive and if you can manage to scrounge enough money together to drink, imagine how much you will have if you put more of that towards food!
3. Eating healthy when stressed / time poor
First and foremost, it is important not to forget about eating. Secondly, it is important not to over indulge on high fat and high sugar foods. Good nutrition can actually help manage stress levels where as over consuming chocolate and coke will give you a large dose of sugar and caffeine which will likely make matters worse.
It is times like these that those frozen meals are perfect!
If you find you eat mindlessly when you are stressed, come up with some other tactics aside from food to manage this. Be conscious of what you are eating and in what quantity and don’t keep poor quality food in the house if this is a problem for you.
Eating healthy tips
- Include as much variety in your diet as you can – covering all 5 food groups
- Limit foods high in sugar, saturated fat and salt
- Drink more water
- Drink less alcohol – This will subsequently free up more money for food!
- Plan your meals in advance and learn just a few healthy, go – to recipes to cook.
- Don’t skip meals
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice about eating healthy
This article eating healthy as a student was written by our nutritionist Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian.
If you have questions about eating healthy or for a personalised meal plan, contact your local doctor who will arrange for you to see a dietitian in Sydney. For healthy eating advice, Contact us today!
The following link will direct you to an information pamphlet on the Australian dietary guidelines for adults. This will provide you with the recommended intakes of the 5 food groups and what constitutes a ‘serve’ of each. It is a simple guide that will help to ensure you are meeting your needs and eating a balanced diet.