Do students really eat that badly?

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Students have a reputation for eating nothing but pasta and baked beans on toast (which, in fact, is pretty good for us) – but there’s much more to students’ diets.

One survey found that one in 10 students in the UK are vegetarian, which is twice as many as the general population. Diets with low or no meat have been associated with health benefits, although the overall healthfulness of a vegetarian diet depends on what foods are eaten instead of the meat. The same survey also found that a quarter of students eat convenience foods most, or every, day.

Another study concluded that only one in five students have “favourable eating behaviours”, which includes moderate snacking, consuming little fast food and eating a lot of fruit and vegetables.

Researchers have also found that students are more likely to gain more weight than people their age who don’t go to university.

Despite a brief deviation from the norm during Covid when students didn’t move out of their family homes, “the research shows that generally students don’t eat very healthily”, says Martin Caraher, professor emeritus of food and health policy at City, University of London.

On a more positive note, students are drinking less alcohol than they did 10 years ago, says John Holmes, professor of alcohol policy at the University of Sheffield in the UK. This is particularly good news because evidence suggests that we establish our drinking habits during young adulthood and maintain them, and that the risks for certain diseases, including liver disease, heart disease and some types of cancer (including breast, bowel and throat), increase based on the amount we drink over our lifetime, Holmes says.

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Students’ drinking habits can also affect their diets; they’re more likely to eat after drinking alcohol, and more likely to eat calorific foods high in salt and sugar, according to research. This behaviour is perpetuated by the false belief that you have to eat something alongside drinking alcohol to help “soak up the alcohol”, says Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor of community health and health behaviour at the University at Buffalo in New York.

“If someone’s out drinking, they’re not going to search for healthy options,” she says. “Nor do many bars or restaurants that are open late have many healthy options, especially in student areas.”

Kruger surveyed more than 250 students and found that they don’t tend to make healthy choices regarding food the day after drinking, either. While there’s no data, Kruger speculates that it may be because alcohol can make you dehydrated, and in response, the body craves salty foods in order to get you to drink more water.

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