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By John Anderer

May 28, 2023

A poor diet in college can lead to a lifetime of bad health

KELOWNA, British Columbia — University students often get a reputation of living on a diet of microwavable meals and energy drinks. While these questionable decisions are usually chalked up to the college lifestyle, a new study is stressing the importance of ditching these habits after graduation. Researchers from the University of British Columbia Okanagan suggest poor dietary habits established during college can contribute to future health issues years and even decades later — including obesity, respiratory illnesses, and depression.

Dr. Joan Bottorff, a professor with UBCO’s School of Nursing, is one of several international researchers involved with this multi-site study that assessed the eating habits of university students. Nearly 12,000 medical students from 31 universities in China took part in this project, which aimed to determine the association between eating behaviors, obesity, and various diseases.

Dr. Bottorff explains that many adults form poor eating habits during their college years that end up persisting 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,” Dr. Bottorff says in a university release. “These are not the only habits that lead to obesity, but they are important and can’t be ruled out.”

Led by Dr. Shihui Peng with the School of Medicine at China’s Jinan University, this study aimed to establish a clear relationship between poor eating habits and infectious diseases including colds and diarrhea. Dr. Bottorff notes, however, that due to the nature of the study, it was not possible to show cause and effect. That being said, the relationship between poor eating habits, obesity, and respiratory illnesses were 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,” Bottorff 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 consisting of high-sugar or high-calorie foods can be a long-term issue; these habits often lead to obesity. Dr. Bottorff adds there is evidence suggesting stress and anxiety can cause overeating, and overeating is also known to 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,” the researcher notes. “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.”

Researchers posit it is mainly up to universities to provide all students with healthy, and affordable, food options.

“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,” Dr. Bottorff explains.

Study authors add it is essential to recognize that a lack of affordable food options, coupled with the stress of university life, can negatively impact students’ food choices in a big way. In conclusion, Dr. Bottorff agrees there have been notable improvements made to food options in many cafeterias and notes the drinks in many vending machines have been rearranged so as to feature healthier items at eye-level and sugary choices below.

“I know many post-secondary schools are trying to figure out how we can do better and are trying to address these problems,” she concludes. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.

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