College students’ eating habits can lead to health conditions

(Greg Cross/Bulletin illustration)

If your diet consists of coffee, Top Ramen, pizza and anything free, you might be a college student.

If you eat on the run, you might be a college student.

If your eating schedule comes second to your sleeping schedule, you might be a college student.

College students (and other early 20-somethings) tend to prioritize budget and convenience when making food-related choices. Experts say eating poorly as a youth can lead to health issues later in life, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and eye disease. Understanding their lifestyle may help to improve student diets.

Oregon State University-Cascades student Tessa Moody, who studies art and sustainability, described what she perceives to be the typical college diet with one word: thrifty.

“As long as it’s regarding what’s going to be a good deal, I think college students are more focused on that more necessarily than super health-centered,” Moody said. “But finding the balance (between health and price) is something that I think a lot of people try to do.”

A recent study published in the journal Evaluations & the Health Professions, “Development and Preliminary Testing of the Food Choice Priorities Survey (FCPS): Assessing the Importance of Multiple Factors on College Students’ Food Choices,” sought to assess the most important factors influencing the dietary choices of undergraduate students nationwide.

Researchers tested students using the Food Choice Priorities Survey, which included 14 items of potential influence on food choices. Aspects such as price, convenience, health, taste, social media and effects on body shape are examples of those considered.

The study identified three scales indicating the main influences on college students’ dietary judgments: advertising environment, daily life and preferences and health appeal.

The results were consistent with the choices made by Central Oregon students.

While Moody is influenced by factors such as “price, what’s in season [and] what sounds good,” she has decided that “keeping it simple” and “cost-effective” are her top priorities. To do that, she partners with her roommate and boyfriend to cook food.

Moody grocery shops at Fred Meyer and Trader Joe’s.

“Fred Meyer is generally the cheapest, Trader Joe’s is good for more specialty stuff,” she said. “But I can’t shop there all the time because it’s dangerous — I’ll spend more money than I need to. You’re like, ‘it’s only $2.99, I’ll just get one of everything!’ Then you’re like, ‘how did I spend $60 at Trader Joe’s?’”

Specialized diets

Another student at OSU-Cascades, Al Moatez Al Kindi, has the same time and money issues as other students. On top of that, the 22-year-old has irritable bowel syndrome.

“So there are a lot of foods that I can’t eat,” Al Kindi said. “I also have hereditary high cholesterol.”

His situation sheds light on another aspect of the discussion of college diet: students with health restrictions. It can be difficult to transition from home-cooked meals — where the chef is often considerate of dietary needs — to eating mostly on campus or going out.

One thing Al Kindi avoids eating is red meat.

“I like eating fish,” he said. Being from the Middle East, Al Kindi grew up accustomed to eating it fresh. “I don’t think I’ll ever cut fish out my diet, but in Central Oregon it’s hard to get the best fish. It’s expensive. Prices are a big part of food and diet, especially for a college student. I don’t have as much freedom as I want to.”

There is no typical day of meals for Al Kindi.

“Every day is different,” he said. “I try to be conscious of what I eat, but because (college) is such a stressful time, I notice that I don’t eat as much as I’m supposed to. Usually, I just have one meal a day.”

Skipping meals is a common problem among students.

Lori Brizee, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder and owner of Central Oregon Nutrition Consultants, said her experience teaching nutrition courses at OSU-Cascades has provided her with insight about the problematic diets of college youth.

Brizee concedes the two major factors that students — and people in general — prioritize when making food-related decisions are time and money.

“And the time,” she explained, “might be more time management; people could probably do a better job of managing their time. But time, and then money. That was really apparent in my class winter quarter.”

Students in Brizee’s class were asked to keep track of their diet for a few days. When they compared their choices to recommendations, several trends appeared: Low vegetable intake, few people eating breakfast and not enough whole grains.

Additionally, the students were eating refined grains, such as white bread and white rice. And some students were really low in protein, especially at breakfast.

“I view breakfast as really important, and research just gets stronger and stronger that eating a healthy breakfast is very important,” she said. That is especially true for people who are trying to lose weight, “because it really helps you to not eat so much later in the day.”

Serious long-term effects on health can arise out of the eating habits during youth.

“You build bone until you’re about 30. If you don’t reach your optimal bone mass by the age of 30, then you’re going to be at higher risk for osteoporosis as you get older,” Brizee said. “[It] makes a difference in your long-term risk … there’s all sorts of things that are affected by how you eat when you’re young.”

The need to eat on the go, limited income, late-night study sessions and shared living spaces are often representative of the college lifestyle. Researchers are working to understand those influences in order to create diet interventions.

Food choice priorities are representative of other factors, such as exercise, or lack thereof; time management and prioritizing sleep over eating, the study explains of the relationship between food choices and students’ driving factors.

Making good choices

So what factors should be prioritized when making dietary choices?

“Eating balanced meals,” Brizee said. “Getting protein, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes. You don’t have to get your protein from meat. You can certainly get it from vegetable sources, which is cheaper than eating meat.”

She also insists students need to eat “breakfast, not just graze all day. If you eat three balanced meals, you’re less likely to just snack on junk.”

Tara Sanders, assistant director for dining services at Oregon State University, provided a few tips for staying healthy while on a student’s budget.

“Packing snacks with you to class is an important tool, and something to think about the evening before your next day of classes. (One) of the easiest and cheap options to think about [is] fresh fruit that is easy to eat in class.”

Think apples, bananas, oranges and the like.

When it comes to buying food off campus, Sanders suggests sticking to a whole foods-based diet. At the grocery store, pay attention to the perimeter of the building where whole foods like produce, dairy and eggs are kept. Buying in bulk is also a successful strategy.

“Beans and legumes are the most sustainable and the most affordable source of protein,” Sanders said. “They can be a good way to boost your protein intake and keep your cost down. I preach a lot about beans, but they’re really the future of food, and the trick to feeding our growing population in a sustainable way.”

Though she is aware firsthand of students’ tendencies to prioritize factors like taste, price and convenience over health, Sanders is optimistic about the evolution of the typical college diet.

“The students just have more developed palettes,” she said. “They’re more adventurous with their food choices, (and) they’re more open for options.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0312;

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