The unhealthy diet of a first year

Katie Gallagher

Sometimes all it takes is a slight change to your routine, or a smidgen more responsibility to completely flip your lifestyle. While entering college is both exciting and empowering for any young adult, it can also be challenging and therefore stressful on your body’s health. Due to this, it is one of the many time-points in one’s life that can trigger an unhealthy diet or relationship with food, according to Dr Mary Rose Sweeney, Senior Lecturer in the School of Nursing and Human Sciences in DCU.

There are numerous US surveys to show that substantial weight gain amongst first years, known as the ‘freshman fifteen’ is common. The trend which gets its title from figures that show weight gain to range between two to fifteen pounds in freshman year, reciprocates Dr Sweeney’s idea that entry into 3rd level education is an important time-point in the pathway to developing an unhealthy diet and gaining weight.

An Irish study carried out by Dr Sweeney and her colleagues to explore whether entry into 3rd level education has any negative impact on the diet, lifestyles or weight on students in DCU reflects this need for concern with 58 per cent of those participating in the questionnaire stating to have gained weight since starting college.

120 students from DCU took part in the pilot study, thirty from each school/faculty, answering a questionnaire and taking weight, waist and height measurements.

The study revealed that almost ninety per cent reported that it was not easy to maintain a healthy diet on campus indicating that while the transition into independence and new pressures is tough, they are not the only limitations factoring into the increase in weight and unhealthy habits in 3rd level education systems.

It is needless to say that there are barriers everywhere in life no matter what you do, but in this case, intervention and slight improvements could potentially curve a worrying and dangerous obesity endemic. Yes, it is all about making the right choices but as an 18-year-old student, moving away from home, learning to budget and juggle time constraints independently for the first time, it can be daunting and therefore easy to gravitate towards the convenient and comforting options.

“We often found that students skip breakfast, so when they walk into college the first thing they smell is sausage rolls and chips that are all high in salt and fats they will be more inclined to go for that, however, if they’d have made time for a bowl of porridge in the morning they wouldn’t be as tempted,” Dr Sweeney said.

“Look at how popular the likes of Chopped are, something like this in DCU would be great for students,” she said. However, even though DCU has a new salad bar in the Sports Centre, can students afford to pay €5 on a salad bowl?

It is no secret that the majority of students live within a tight budget, so you often hear people say ‘I’m too poor to be on a diet’ around college.

It’s not that students are unable to fend for themselves, in fact, the study indicated that 87 per cent stated that they knew what a healthy diet was they just couldn’t afford to implement it. Unsurprisingly, when asked why over half of these admitted to not having a healthy diet, the answers included the inability to afford it and not having the knowledge of how to prepare healthy food.

However, money and knowledge aside, many students directed the cause for concern towards the food choices available on campus in DCU. At the time of the study, a majority of 87 per cent stated that it was not possible to eat healthy on campus. Not only was the reasoning down to price point and choice, but students also highlighted the fact that there is nowhere to eat or prepare foods taken to college from home. This has been an on-going issue amongst students, especially those with dietary needs who are calling for the access to hot water or microwaves or a student kitchen area where one can bring in food from home instead of having to purchase it on campus.

Dr Sweeney said that as a staff member in the School of Nursing and Human Sciences they have access to an area with fridges, kettles and microwaves. With almost 40 per cent stating the accessibility to such an outlet would allow them to eat a healthier diet, she believes that while it would be a big infrastructure and investment, it would be worth looking into.

Discovering and balancing a new found social life in 3rd level is another huge part of the process and the study found that smoking and alcohol consumption was worryingly high in first years. A third of those asked said they drank alcohol more than 2-3 times per week with over half stating they drink more since beginning college meanwhile a shocking 61 per cent admitted to smoking more since entering first year.

Dr Sweeney made the point that the problem here coincides with weight gain, as not only do these actions often stigmatise eating at times but alcohol itself can be quite calorific so excessive drinking would definitely aid weight gain.

College can be a challenging time in many ways, learning to fend for oneself and transition into a new community can take some time and getting used to so if there are ways to counteract these issues with unhealthy eating, it’s worth looking into. Dr Sweeney suggested taking example from places like Denmark where they have implemented yoghurt and smoothie bars, things that the students responded well to, to encourage the healthy lifestyle rather than act as a barrier to living one.

Katie Gallagher

Image Credit: Dominos Pizza