University life can challenge your healthy eating habits. Cindy Williams tells how to keep your health in check.
Your first year as a uni student is exciting, challenging — and potentially the unhealthiest year of your life. You may also be living away from home for the first time, coping with less money and more freedom, so it’s too easy to go a little crazy with your eating and drinking, not to mention socialising!
Americans talk about the ‘freshman 15’: the 15 pounds (7 kilos) that students typically gain during their first year at college. This phenomenon is just as common in Australia, but it doesn’t have to be. With a little planning and the simple strategies on these pages, you can stay fit, healthy and happy.
Your time at university will involve a little walking and a lot of sitting: listening in lectures, working in the library and studying in your room. There’s no more compulsory school sport to make you move; now it’s up to you to stay active. Remember that regular exercise helps you study better, sleep better, look better and feel better!
Move it or lose it: Join a sports team, a dance group or a gym. University-based gyms and pools usually offer discount memberships to students.
Buy an affordable bike: Cycle to uni lectures rather than drive or catch the bus.
Climb, don’t ride: Take the stairs instead of the lift.
Leg it: Walk whenever you can. Ditch the car, and if you’re catching public transport, hop off a stop or two early and walk the rest of the way to burn a few extra kilojoules.
Take active breaks: Studying involves long periods of sitting, which promote weight gain. Get up and move every hour.
Surviving on a ‘poor student’ budget
“We’ve got enough money for either beer or food, so which is it?” Here’s hoping your budget and your drinking habits won’t put you in this situation. It is possible to eat healthy food on
a tight budget, but without smart planning, you may find that your money’s gobbled up by late-night takeaway binges and expensive processed foods.
Make lunch at home: This doesn’t have to be fancy or laborious. Make lunch from dinner leftovers, or prepare a simple sandwich filled with salad and lean meat or hard-boiled eggs.
Leave the plastic at home: With so many food outlets to choose from, it can be tempting to purchase food with the swipe of a credit or debit card. Carry just enough cash to cover the week’s transport costs and uni supplies. This will dampen the temptation to buy that chocolate bar or muffin you don’t need or simply can’t afford.
Stay hydrated: Swap soft drinks and juices for water. Your body needs at least eight glasses of H2O a day, and if you exercise vigorously, you may need more. Carry a water bottle with you, and refill it at bubblers or in bathrooms. It won’t cost you a cent!
Buy cheaper cuts of meat: Try cooking cheap cuts of meat in a casserole dish. Cook a $5 chuck steak with veg for two hours, and you’ll have a nutritious meal that’ll last for several days!
Pad out dishes: Make mince go further by adding affordable red lentils. (The extra fibre will make the meal more satisfying, too.)
Include legumes: Dried beans and lentils and tofu are cheap sources of protein. Add dried beans to salads; soups, such as minestrone; and mince, such as chilli con carne. Add tofu to Asian soups and stir-fries, and keep a few cans of baked beans on hand for speedy, inexpensive high-fibre meals
Shop with the season: Buy in-season fruit and veg, such as apples in autumn and asparagus in spring. They’re not only less expensive, but also fresher and more nutritious.
Look for discounts: Check use-by dates of discounted foods, as they’re often just about to expire.
Shop at a supermarket: Don’t rely on the corner store, service station or university convenience store.
Seek out value: To get the most bang for your buck, always compare the prices of different brands per 100g.
Eat before you shop: Don’t shop when you’re hungry; you’ll only buy more food.
Buy in bulk: It’s often cheaper, and you can share the food with friends. Freeze extra bread and cuts of meat so you have staple foods on hand.
Buy basic breakfast cereals: Brekkie foods such as rolled oats are cheaper and healthier than some big brand cereals, not to mention more versatile.
DIY snacks: Costly crackers and biscuits can go stale before you finish the packet, so grab a bag of popping corn and make your own popcorn. It’s a fast and filling snack.
Whip up good health: Make your own smoothies with low-fat milk, yoghurt and fruit, such as banana and berries.
These healthy and satisfying snacks will save you both time and money on long uni days.
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 sushi roll
1 cup fruit salad
2 cups air-popped popcorn
Milo made with low-fat milk
1 tub low-fat yoghurt
1 small can baked beans on wholegrain toast
1 small can tuna
Drinking to excess
As we know, university is as much about socialising as it is about studying. And where there’s socialising, there’s usually alcohol. It’s easy to say “drink less”, but that’s hard to do when everyone’s urging you to have “one more drink” or to play the latest drinking game.
Apart from the obvious health risks, drinking too much alcohol can see you stack on too many kilos. Depending on the brand, a 330ml bottle of beer can contain up to 600kJ (144cal). Multiply that by four or five, and you’ve downed well over a quarter of your recommended daily energy intake. A 330ml bottle of cider is brimming with up to 800kJ (191cal), which is roughly the same amount of energy as six squares of milk chocolate provide. Sugary soft drinks are also high in kilojoules: A 375ml bottle of ginger beer has nearly 700kJ (167cal), which would make a sizeable dent in your daily kilojoule consumption.
Drink before you drink: Before you go out, drink water and even enjoy a light snack, such as avocado or hoummos on wholegrain toast. This will stop you sculling your first few drinks to quench your thirst or stem your hunger.
Mix your drinks: Alternate alcoholic drinks with plain, sparkling or soda water. It’s a good strategy for both your body and your budget. (Unlike soda water, tonic water bubbles with as many kilojoules as other soft drinks do.)
Step away from the snacks: Once you get a taste of that fat-sugar-salt combo, it’s hard to stop.
Breakfast right: If you wake up after a big night feeling a little under the weather, resist the desire to reach for high-fat takeaway foods. Instead, refuel with poached eggs and avocado on wholegrain toast or with a low-fat fruit smoothie. Happily, you’ll find that healthy options hit the same spot.
Living at university
Living in a residential college can make it even harder to maintain a healthy weight. You tend to rely on heavy cafeteria-style meals, and late-night study sessions mean snacks! You may also find yourself swept up in endless nights of college parties.
Eating cafeteria food often means queuing up in front of mega-size stainless-steel dishes of glistening (read oily) lasagne, mounds of buttery mashed potato and overcooked vegies swimming in cheese sauce. And if the people around you are piling their plates high, and you know there’s no more food until the next morning, it’s easy to follow suit.
Fill your plate with colour: Fresh produce (particularly vegetables) is full of fibre to help you feel satisfied, and bursting with nutrients to keep you looking and feeling great. In contrast, brown, white and beige foods usually have fewer nutrients and more kilojoules. Aim to eat at least two cups of vegetables or salad at lunch and dinner, and enjoy two pieces of fruit every day.
Go easy on starchy carbs: Limit mashed potato, pasta, rice, chips and buttered bread, unless you’re extremely active and need extra carbs for energy.
Size up your protein: Meat, chicken and fish are great sources of immunity-boosting iron and zinc. It’s best to eat protein on most days, but as a portion much like the size of your iPhone, not your iPad.
Fill up on fibre: Eat fibre-rich foods to keep you feeling satisfied. Choose fresh fruit salads, vegies (frozen are fine), baked beans (instead of canned spaghetti), wholegrain bread (instead of the white variety), lentils, porridge and muesli.
Help yourself to H2O: If you have a choice between cordial and water, go for the water. Sip a glass or two with your meals. This slows your eating pace and fills you up, making you less likely to overeat.
Be prepared: If your busy schedule means you’ll miss a meal, take some fresh fruit and a sandwich for later, or pack some healthy snacks, such as small tubs of yoghurt or low-fat flavoured milk (if you have access to a fridge). Alternatively, opt for canned tuna, dried fruit or unsalted nuts, or for avocado or peanut butter on wholegrain crackers, such as Arnott’s Vita-Weats.
Stress and homesickness
University is a big step up from school. Although you enjoy less structure and routine, you probably have to deal with a heavy workload and, possibly, with the pressure of part-time employment. Still, no one tells you what to do, and working out how and when you’ll get through it all is entirely up to you.
It’s important to realise that stress often leads to overeating, especially succumbing to unhealthy junk foods that can cause weight gain. If you’re also living away from home for the first time, the stress can be even greater: You have to cope on your own as well as experience the very normal feeling of homesickness. Stress also weakens your immune system, making you more prone to illness, so you need to eat well to help keep your immune system strong.
Stay in touch: Contact your family frequently, every day if necessary. Remember: The people at home will be missing you, too. If possible, arrange to have one adult relative or family friend who lives in the same city visit you on occasion.
Keep busy: Enjoy extracurricular activities; you need regular time out from studying.
Exercise regularly: Physical activity is an effective stress reliever, so make time to move.
Plan your meals: At stressful times, such as during exams, organise healthy meals for those days a week earlier, and take regular study breaks — even stepping outside for a breath of fresh air should do the trick.
Volunteer: Do something to help other people. This will help take your mind off yourself and your feelings.
Socialise: Join a university group or club for plenty of social contact. You’ll strengthen your sense of self and enjoy a feeling of belonging.
Organise events: Give yourself things to look forward to, and try to spread them throughout the semester.
Keep a journal: Sometimes, loneliness is not the absence of people but the absence of purpose. Write down your goals or purpose and remind yourself of them every day.
Sharing a flat for the first time is another challenge. You have to shop and cook for yourself, as well as for others who may have different tastes, habits and lifestyles — all on a tight budget. This makes it tempting to live on instant noodles, toast and takeaways. But in the long term, all that salty, fatty brown food wreaks havoc on your budget, your body and your brain.
Work together: Plan the week’s menu and stick it on the fridge. You could even have a cuisine-specific theme, such as Indian, for each week.
Designate a cook: Decide who’s cooking on which days, so that even on nights when you have other commitments, you can look forward to having a healthy dinner when you get home.
Make the most of meals: When you prepare a main meal, make a little extra, and freeze leftover soups and casseroles, too. Label leftovers with a date so they don’t sit there for months.
Stock the freezer: Keep a stash of frozen vegetables to toss into stir-fries, pasta, soups and stews.
Learn to cook: Before you start sharing a flat, master three to five simple healthy dishes. Practise making omelettes, baked potatoes, steamed and roast veg, spaghetti bolognese, minestrone soup with beans, fish baked in foil, chilli con carne, fried rice and a chicken stir-fry.
Top survival tips
Limit bought lunches: Treat yourself to lunching out only once a week; both your wallet and waistline will thank you!
Curb takeaways: Replace café-style coffees with tea. Pack a few of your favourite tea bags in your bag.
Try Meat-free Mondays: Meat can be expensive, so why not experiment with lentils, beans and meat alternatives?
Eat dinner at home: Dine before you head out for drinks with friends. Restaurant meals are expensive and usually high in kilojoules.
Carry a water bottle: Don’t waste cash on bottled water. And if you have water in your bag, sugary drinks will be less of a temptation, too.
Cook up a storm: Master three to five healthy recipes.
Buy fruit and vegetables in season, and shop in bulk when possible: Some supermarkets have specials on bread and fresh produce, such as fruit, towards the end of the day or on Sunday evenings.
Make meals in bulk: Freeze the extra portions for easy microwave dinners, or lunch on leftovers.
Walk whenever possible: Stop overpaying for parking and public transport — walking is free aerobic exercise!