Healthy eating habits have many benefits including physical, mental and emotional well-being. Eating well can help students get a good night’s sleep, stay alert in class and feel energized throughout the day.
During the school year, Western students may find it difficult to maintain a healthy diet due to the time-crunch of upcoming assignments, deadlines and exams. With the added stress of finals, some students confess that they have a tendency to indulge in unhealthy snacks and junk food while they study.
Christine Tenk, associate psychology professor at Brescia, explained in an email that eating junk food can act as a coping strategy to distract students from the negative emotions that they are experiencing during these stressful times.
“Foods that are high in sugar or fat cause the release of rewarding chemicals in the brain and thereby improve mood,” Tenk said. “Other foods, such as those associated with positive childhood memories, can be powerfully comforting.”
Conversely, skipping meals to make more time for studying also has negatives effects on student’s overall health and well-being.
Students' brains work harder when they're studying. However, Tenk stated that skipping meals can limit the amount of glucose students consume, an important fuel for the brain, which causes students to feel tired during the day.
“While the brain only makes up two per cent of our body weight, even at rest, the brain accounts for 55 per cent of the body’s glucose consumption,” explained Tenk. “Skipping meals may result in inadequate glucose supply for an active brain.”
Tenk recognizes that diet has the ability to affect behaviour. She recommends students consume more fruits and vegetables because individuals who consume more of them are reported to have fewer mental health issues.
Anne Zok, nutrition manager at Western Hospitality Services, also emphasized the importance of maintaining healthy eating habits in order to keep energy levels up for studying, socializing and other leisure activities.
"If you eat poorly or eat very little under stress, your body may not get enough nutrients," said Zok in an email. "[But] if the foods you eat when stressed are high in fat, sugar and/or sodium, eating a lot of them may lead to health problems."
Shanleigh Moraghan, a master's student in library sciences, said that she eats healthy for the most part, but also admits that she has the occasional cheat meal.
“When I focus on going grocery shopping on a certain day each week, then I can plan things out better,” said Moraghan. “It’s when I start getting sporadic and not thinking ahead that I tend to eat worse.”
Although Moraghan tries to save money on meals, she believes that her health is more important than money. She said that her eating habits worsen during times of emotional distress or when deadlines are near. While studying, Moraghan likes to munch on tortellini, chips, chocolate and ice cream.
Zok advises that students should turn to healthier snack options such as raw vegetables, fresh fruit, whole-grain crackers and low-fat yogurt.
“In general, eat regular and well,” said Zok. “The additives in many foods may make stress worse. Instead, eat as much whole foods that have undergone the least amount of processing and try not to skip meals."
Although it is important to ensure that the body is getting an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals, Zok warned that supplements should not be used as a replacement to food without consulting a healthcare practitioner.
There are many students who keep a healthy diet in mind even while on a budget. Third-year BMOS student Marc Watson said that he considers healthy eating important to mental and physical well-being, especially since he had recently undergone a surgery.
According to Watson, he takes care not to skip meals and packs a lunch and snacks every day that he will be on campus for class or to study.
Watson also keeps his spending at a minimum by preparing meals at home and buying his groceries in bulk.
“I think the time it takes to prepare a healthy meal is worth it,” said Watson. “It gives you a break from all the stress in your life.”
Preparing meals in advance at home is not the only way to eat healthy. Items that are FRESH approved can be found in residences and on-campus eateries. These food items have been approved based on criteria that takes calories, fat, fibre, protein, calcium, iron and other vitamins into consideration.
As students spend more time studying in libraries for their exams, these healthier meal options can be an alternative to at-home meal preparations.