Being a student, and eating well

Diet is an often an overlooked health issue for students, but one that is very important. For many students, moving away from home to campus, can have a detrimental impact on their nutrition. Below I will talk through what to avoid, and what to try to stick with in terms of making sure you eat well, and maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Doing it wrong

For some students during Freshers’ the appeal of 2 for 1 offers on kebabs, pizzas, and other takeaways can be very appealing. For others, it may be the first time they have had to cook a meal from scratch; so a ready meal, or Super Noodles may be very convenient. However, takeaways and microwave meals are not generally the best for long-term health. That’s not to say, that the occasional microwave meal will be a problem, but they do tend to have less nutritional content, with little in the range of vitamins and minerals, and low in fibre, and tend to be higher in salt, sugars, and fats. It’s all about getting the balance right.

Poor nutrition can have a detrimental impact on your mood, your ability to concentrate, becoming overweight and obesity (or underweight), impact on your sleep, and in worse case scenarios can lead to noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, heart attacks, and cancers.

In their paper, Tanton et al, (2015) reported that the average student in the UK eats around 3 portions of fruit and veg per day, when the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 5 portions. They also commented on the high incidence of eating convenient meals (fast food, takeaways, etc.) that students have across the globe and the impact this has on their mind and body. You can read their full paper here.

A good diet, is one that includes high fibre, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, good hydration (but avoiding too much alcohol, or avoid it altogether), starchy carbohydrates (such as breads, potatoes, and cereals – and where possible go for wholegrain), and moderate amounts of protein (such as fish, lean meat, or nuts/lentils), and limiting the amount of sugars and fats. A balanced diet is the recommended type of diet.

Getting it right

Being a student, usually means money will be tight, so some top tips for making your money go further include, buying fruit and veg when in season (buying asparagus from South America in winter, will cost a lot more than locally grown asparagus in April and May for example, plus the taste will be affected as the natural sugars turn starchy). Local markets usually will sell fruit and veg cheaper than supermarkets, but if you don’t have a market near you, opt for cheaper supermarkets.

Breakfast

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Breakfast is often the first thing that gets neglected. Having a late night with your mates, means having a snooze in the morning, and then rushing to get to lectures or placement on time, but then often leads to snacking on crisps and chocolate to keep you going throughout the morning until lunch. But a good breakfast will keep you going. Wholegrain toast with a nut butter (such as peanut or cashew nut) with a small glass of fresh fruit juice (such as orange, apple or grapefruit) is healthy and relatively quick to prepare, and eat. If you have a little more time, then porridge made with low fat milk (dairy or vegetarian) is a very healthy choice. If you want to be prepared, then a Bircher style muesli is quick to put together, and can be left overnight in the fridge ready for the morning, and can be eaten on the go if you do wake up a little later than expected. I’ll post my Bircher recipe another time, but search online for recipes as they are super easy to make, and very good for you.

Lunch

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Lunches tend to be cheaper if you make them at home and bring them to campus. There are now microwaves dotted around campus if you want to reheat some stew, curry, etc. that you may have made at home. Alternatively, you can bring in healthy pasta or cous-cous salads, or a sandwich. If you live close to, or on campus, a quick and easy lunch is crushed avocado on wholegrain toast, with a poached egg (poaching an egg is a lot simpler than many people realise). If you decide to eat in one of the University’s eateries, then consider going for the healthier options. A baked potato with baked beans or chilli is pretty healthy, and will probably keep you going until dinner in the evening. Or pasta, noodle or rice dish with plenty of vegetables will also be a good option.

Dinner

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Sometimes the idea of cooking an evening meal after a day of lectures or placement, can seem like a laborious job. Most students live with others; be it their family, or other students. Why not take it in turns to cook for each other, or cook together and divvy up the tasks. Try not to eat too late, as this will impact on your sleep. Where possible, cook something that can also be frozen and reheated at a later date; so make double, eat one portion and freeze the other. Pasta and simple sauces are relatively easy to learn, and often some of the quickest meals to cook. Think about healthier alternatives to chips, such as oven baked potato wedges, and instead of salt, think of other seasoning such as herbs. Curries, stews, and tangines are pretty good, as most require some time to prepare (e.g. chopping up the veg and protein), but can more often than not, be left to cook, whilst you do some revision or essay writing.

Drinks

Keeping a good level of hydration is important. Most adults will require around 1.5 to 2.0 litres of non-alcoholic drinks per day. Water is best, but sugar free drinks are also good. Be mindful of drinking fresh fruit juices, they are good (with vitamins and minerals), but they are high in natural sugars. Dehydration leads to headaches and poor concentration, which is never good when you need to concentrate in your lectures. Also be mindful of drinks high in caffeine such as coffee, tea, some soft drinks and some energy drinks, as this can have an adverse affect on your sleep. Drinking alcohol in moderation should also be advised. Avoiding alcohol altogether is great, but if you do like to drink beer/cider/wine/spirits etc., then try to stick within the health recommendations to reduce the risk of alcohol related illnesses.

Reference: Jina Tanton, Lorna J. Dodd, Lorayne Woodfield, and Mzwandile Mabhala, “Eating Behaviours of British University Students: A Cluster Analysis on a Neglected Issue,” Advances in Preventive Medicine, vol. 2015, Article ID 639239, 8 pages, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/639239.

How to get better sleep

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One of the main reasons students refer themselves to the University of Cumbria’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team, is because they are struggling with sleep. It might be because they struggle to get to sleep, or they sleep too much, or they have disturbed sleep. Sustained sleep deprivation has a detrimental impact on your mental and physical health. But even short periods of poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mood, and your academic performance.

In their paper, Steven P. Gilbert & Cameron C. Weaver ((2010) Sleep Quality and Academic Performance in University Students: A Wake-Up Call for College Psychologists, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 24:4, 295-306, DOI: 10.1080/87568225.2010.509245), discuss some of the issues that students in particular face, when it comes to poor sleep. They note that one of the first daily routines to change when students first arrive on campus, is their sleep. Sleep-cycle (the going to bed at the same time, and waking up at the same time each day) is usually the first thing that changes. If the change becomes permanent, then problems can start to arise. Missing the occasional night (e.g. going to a party, or a club night), can make us a little tired the next day, but chronic sleep problems have a significant impact.

Top tips for better sleep

Having a bedtime routine can really help. One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed, and wake up, more or less the same time every night, even on weekends and days off. It can be a challenge if you are a student on placement, working shifts, but where possible, sleep the same amount of hours each night. If possible, aim to start your bedtime routine at least 30 minutes before getting into bed. Have a warm bath and relax (baths are not just for cleaning your body, but can be a way to relax). Some people find 15 minutes relaxation techniques useful, such as mindfulness, breathing exercises or a few relaxing stretches can aid the process of falling asleep. Help your brain to switch off. You can’t expect your brain to go from being stimulated by computer games, films, revision, checking social media, etc. one minute, to being totally switched off the next minute.

Try to avoid consumption of food and drink too close to bed, but particularly avoid consuming caffeine, (such as coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, “energy drinks”), nicotine, (cigarettes or vaping) at least 4 hours before bed. These substances act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep. Falling asleep on an empty stomach can be distracting, so make sure you have had a light snack close to bedtime, but don’t eat your full evening meal too late, as digesting lots of food, can also negatively impact on your sleep. It is best to avoid taking naps during the day, to make sure that you are tired at bedtime. If you can’t make it through the day without a nap, make sure it is for less than an hour and before 3pm.

Regular exercise also helps; burning up surplus energy, will help you feel tired (as well as all the physical and emotional benefits associated with exercise). It doesn’t have to be excessive or strenuous, but don’t do it immediately before bed, a few hours before is ideal. If you don’t consider yourself sporty, think about alternative exercise, such as a walk in the park, some yoga, etc.

It may seem obvious, but only go to bed when you feel sleepy, rather than spending too much time laying in bed staring at your eyelids! Whatever you do, don’t decide to prop yourself up and watch TV, or start using other electronic devices such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. That will only simulate your mind, and the bright light will trick your mind into thinking it is day time. It will also teach your mind that your bed is used for other activities other than sleep. If you use your smartphone as an alarm clock, turn on the night time settings that most smartphones come with, that way you won’t be disturbed by a text message coming through, or a social media notification. Bed should only be used for sleep, or if you are recovering from illness, or for a little romance!!!! Let your body and brain develop this association. If you do climb into bed, and get an idea for an assignment that you are working on, quickly jump out of bed, and make a note for the morning, before getting back into bed. That all said, there are some useful apps for helping and aiding with sleep; these include sleep trackers (but these tend to work better when you have a smart watch), or meditation/mindfulness apps.

If you do find yourself struggling, even when you have put all the above tips into practice, then do try and avoid clock watching. Frequently checking the clock during the night can wake you up (especially if you turn on the light to read the time) and reinforces negative thoughts such as “Oh no, look how late it is, I’ll never get to sleep” or “I’ve only slept for 5 hours.” If you haven’t been able to get to sleep after about 20 minutes or more, get up and do something calming or boring until you feel sleepy, then return to bed and try again. Sit quietly on the couch with the lights off (bright light will tell your brain that it is time to wake up), or read something boring like the phone book. Avoid doing anything that is too stimulating or interesting, as this will wake you up even more.

If you have any tips on improving sleep, please share below.