Your College Diet Could Be Your Downfall: How Students’ Poor Eating Habits Can Lead to a Lifetime of Illness

Woman Eating Junk Food in Bed

A new study warns that poor eating habits developed during post-secondary education can lead to obesity and related health issues like respiratory illnesses and depression. Involving almost 12,000 medical students from 31 Chinese universities, the study underlines the link between unhealthy diets and both chronic and infectious diseases, urging universities to offer healthier, affordable food options to students.

According to a professor at UBC Okanagan, universities should provide healthy, affordable food options.

A UBC Okanagan researcher warns that unhealthy dietary habits formed during a person’s university years may lead to significant health problems later in life, including obesity, respiratory diseases,, and depression.

Dr. Joan Bottorff, a Professor with UBCO’s School of Nursing, along with a team of global researchers, has published a comprehensive study examining the eating patterns of university students. The study included the participation of nearly 12,000 medical students from 31 Chinese universities, with the goal to investigate the correlation between dietary habits, obesity, and an array of health conditions.

The point, says Dr. Bottorff, is that many poor eating habits begin at university and can continue for decades.

“We know many students consume high-calorie meals along with sugary foods and drinks and there is lots of evidence to show those kinds of eating behaviors can lead to obesity,” says Dr. Bottorff. “These are not the only habits that lead to obesity, but they are important and can’t be ruled out.”

The study, published recently in Preventive Medicine Reports, was led by Dr. Shihui Peng with the School of Medicine at China’s Jinan University. While there is well-established research that links unhealthy diets to many chronic diseases, this study aimed to show a relationship between poor eating habits and infectious diseases including colds and diarrhea.

Dr. Bottorff notes, due to the nature of the study, it was not possible to show cause and effect but the relationship between poor eating habits, obesity, and respiratory illnesses was well supported.

“There has been biomedical research that also supports this link between obesity and infectious diseases, and most recently this has been related to COVID-19,” she adds. “We know from some of the recent publications related to COVID-19, obese people were more likely to have severe conditions and outcomes. Reasons that have been offered for this increased vulnerability include impaired breathing from the pressure of extra weight and poorer inflammatory and immune responses.”

A typical student diet of high-sugar or high-calorie foods can become a long-term issue as these habits can lead to obesity. Dr. Bottorff says there is evidence to show that stress and anxiety can cause overeating, but overeating can also lead to stress and depression.

“The bottom line here is that we shouldn’t be ignoring this risk pattern among young people at university. It is well documented that a significant portion of students have unhealthy diets,” she adds. “The types of foods they are eating are linked to obesity. And this can lead to other health problems that are not just about chronic disease but also infectious diseases.”

While Dr. Bottorff says students should be taught about healthy eating while at university the onus should be on the school to provide healthy, and affordable, food options for all students.

“We need to think about the food environment that we provide students. We need to ensure that in our cafeterias and vending machines, there are healthy food options so that they can eat on the go but also make healthy food choices.”

It’s not an issue going unnoticed. UBC Student Wellness and Food Services work together to address food security and food literacy and recognize that a lack of affordable food options, coupled with the stress of university life, can negatively impact students’ food choices.

Food-insecure students have access to a low-barrier food bank and a meal share program. Meanwhile, UBCO Food Services’ culinary team prioritizes local, organic, and sustainably-sourced ingredients, and works with a registered dietitian to ensure a wide variety of food options are available to all diners.

Dr. Bottorff agrees there have been improvements to food options in cafeterias and notes the drinks in many vending machines have been rearranged so healthier items are at eye-level and sugary choices are lower down.

“I know many post-secondary schools are trying to figure out how we can do better and are trying to address these problems,” she adds. “It’s great because four or five years ago, we weren’t. So, I think we’re on the right road, but I think we’re a long way from finished.”

Reference: “Does obesity related eating behaviors only affect chronic diseases? A nationwide study of university students in China” by Sihui Peng, Dan Wu, Tingzhong Yang and Joan L Bottorff, 11 February 2023, Preventive Medicine Reports.
DOI: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2023.102135

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