Student Nutrition

I was recently interviewed by Nexus, the student magazine for the Waikato Student Union about Nutrition.  I thought I would expand on it here, looking at the reality of maintaining healthy nutrition as a student.

You've heard the benefits time and time again, good nutrition will increase your energy, help you to think clearer, get through your day better and help with good grades, along with managing weight and weight related conditions.  These are all true, the fuel we put into our bodies directly relates to the output we achieve from it.  I can remember my days as a student, dozing off in lectures due a high GI breakfast which provided just enough energy to get from the hostel to the lecture theatre only to then hit the snack machine between classes.

There are plenty of hurdles to overcome when improving our nutrition as a student:

  • Limited cooking or food storage facilities
  • Time management
  • Budget constraints
  • Cooking skills
  • No control when grocery shopping or in meal preparation

It may be easy, cheap and quick to whip up a packet of 2 minute noodles but there are other alternatives to easy, quick and cheap.

  • Fridges/Freezers - Firstly, if you're flatting invest in a second hand chest freezer.  Yes I know you're a student on a budget, but I also know how much students spend on partying and I also know how much students spend from their student loans.  A chest freezer is your best friend when flatting because when mum, dad, granddad, aunty, friend etc has spare frozen meat or veg you can just put up your hand and say yes please.  A chest freezer means you can freeze leftovers which is pretty handy when you've "got no time" to cook.  When items are on special at the supermarket you can stock up and freeze.  These are all cost saving things, but you can't take advantage if you don't have a big enough freezer.
  • If your oven/stove doesn't work properly your landlord is responsible for this.  Most flats will have old ovens, so if you can't use the grill, oven and all 4 cook tops, then get on to your landlord.  Poor cooking facilities reduce the types of foods we want to cook.
  • Write a master shopping list.  You only need to do this once, with a few tweaks.  Refer to the same list each week.  You know it takes 6 loaves of bread to feed the flat each week, and 6 loaves is on the list, so buy 6 loaves of bread...not more.  Be honest, you know if you stock up on things like this you just go and eat more of it.
  • Learn basic cooking skills.  If you can't cook, you can't cook good food.  Basic cookery is quick to learn.
  • Buy fruit and veg in season, you can tell when it's in season because it doesn't give you a heart attack when you look at the price.  Don't get hung up on fresh - buy frozen also.  As a financially challenged student, I'll also allow you to use tinned fruit, but once you're earning good money, I suggest you stick to fresh and frozen.
  • Flavour naturally.  It is far cheaper and better for you to use onions, herbs, spices, salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, lemon juice, tomato paste, tinned tomatoes etc to flavour your food.  Additives can make us sluggish, and a jar of tomato based pasta sauce can actually be more expensive than making it ourselves from tinned tomatoes, garlic, salt & oregano.
  • Look at your portions.  Yes, you've had a hard day of study, but is that any excuse to pile your plate with enough food to feed a small nation?  There people out there working just as hard as you, eating less and surviving fine.  Smaller portions makes food go further which is cheaper and better for the waistline.
  • Drink water.  $1.20 a day for a can of coke is $6 for a 5 day week.  That's 2 bags of apples.  Fatigue and brain fog is often a result of dehydration.  Splash out and buy 1 bottle of water and then refill that bottle through the day.  Aim for about 3 a day.  Plummeting sugar levels also create a feeling of thirst, fizzy and sugary drinks are just feeding the beast.

Flatting can be tricky as other members of the flat may not be as concerned for their health or weight as you.  Don't change the system if there is resistance, but don't let the flat system control your health either.

  • Ask your flatmates to leave a small amount of {insert meat here} aside if it looks likely they'll be cooking something horrendous with it.
  • Serve your own portions (including the good ol nacho condiments cheese and sour cream)
  • Freeze leftovers and heat up for yourself if it's 'takeaway night'
  • Offer to cook most meals (in return for NEVER having to do the dishes!!)
  • Talk to the flatties and see if they're interested in improving their health.  Split the cost of a nutritionist to get practical advice.

Hostel living is another hurdle.  The semi-smorgasboard style of eating, places temptations in eyesight which can be hard to resist after lugging 20kg of textbooks to the dining room after your last lecture.

  • Load your plate with veges (go easy on the roasties they're usually deep fried) so there's less room for any bad food
  • Take the skin of chicken and cut the fat off meat
  • Eat slowly, take time to chat with friends and experience proper satiety and resist the urge to go back for seconds
  • Leave the cordial for those sweaty sporty hostel mates.  Drink water.
  • Go for the fruit salad for dessert, or have a couple of pieces of fresh fruit.  Save the dessert treat for one night when it's your absolute fave!
  • Ask the cook if you can have a few leftovers to take back to your room (of good stuff).  All hostels have basic cooking and fridge facilities and left overs are cheaper, easier and healthier to heat up than going for the cookies, toast and noodles.

And a final quick word about alcohol.  It has calories, even vodka and soda.  It's not always the mixer, but the alcohol which has more calories.  It also robs your body of energy providing B-Vitamins.  You're a student, so of course partying is all part of the cause - but is Wednesday night to Sunday morning really necessary?

At the end of the day you have to actually want  to feel healthier in order to even see these ideas as anything more 'just something else to deal with'.