Simple Guide to Healthy Eating in University

University students are a busy bunch! Between attending classes, studying, participating in extracurricular activities, conquering part time jobs, and finding a social life, it can be hard to sneak in a healthy, satisfying meal.

But the foods we put into our body can have a profound effect on our physical and mental wellbeing, and in turn, our academic success.

There is no doubt that nutrition information can be overwhelming! But if we break it down to the basics, even the busiest of students can adopt a few of the following healthy eating tips:

Eat a variety of healthy foods each day

When preparing your meals, use Health Canada’s healthy plate model to guide your food choices. 

What is the healthy plate model?

The healthy plate model or balanced plate is a guide to the proportions of foods you should put on your plate.

Simply, it reminds us to fill half our plate with vegetables and fruit, a quarter with whole grains, and a quarter with protein foods. 

Choose as many colourful vegetables and fruit to fill your plate. The more colour, the more variety! And as the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. ;) 

When you create meals with colourful vegetables and fruits, you are not only making your meal more appealing to the eye (remember - we often eat with our eyes first), but you are also providing your body with a variety of important nutrients like fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, that contribute to good health.

Likewise, whole grains can provide an abundance of important nutrients like fibre, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, and protein! 

But sometimes it can be difficult to identify whether a product is WHOLE GRAIN especially when there are so many different terms and labels for grain products like refined grains and enriched grains. 

So what is a whole grain?

A grain is considered a whole grain when it has all three of its original parts - the bran, germ, and endosperm - intact. 

Some examples of whole grains include quinoa, barley, buckwheat, corn, wild rice, rye, spelt, oats, whole grain pasta, and whole grain bread.

Refined grains and enriched grains are not whole grains as parts of the kernel are either removed or removed and added back to the product. By taking out parts of the kernel, you are essentially losing some of the most nutritious parts of the grain. 

An excellent diagram that compares the amount of nutrients in whole grains vs. refined grains vs. enriched grains can be found on the Whole Grain Council

Last but not least are protein foods! 

With the remaining quarter of our plate, we should aim to add protein foods like beans, lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds, cheese, yogurt, lean meats, poultry, fish, and shellfish. 

While many animal-based protein products can be nutritious, following a diet that regularly includes plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and plant-based proteins, can have positive health benefits including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers like colon cancer. (1)

Shifting our consumption to plant-based proteins is not only better for our health, but can also be a cheaper option and better for our environment.

Have regular meals and include snacks when necessary

It is easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the university student life, but it is important to have regular meals and include snacks throughout the day.

Having regular meals and snacks helps fuel your body, and prevents overeating. It also provides you with the brain power to be alert during lectures and hammer out tough study sessions.

Your brain’s main source of energy is glucose - a simple sugar that is found in carbohydrates (e.g., vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and lentils). When we skip meals, we are limiting our body and brain from the important energy it needs to continue to function - hence why you may feel sluggish or unable to concentrate when you haven’t had much to eat!

Strive to have three regular meals throughout the day (INCLUDING A SOLID BREAKFAST!!) and small hardy snacks to curve your hunger between meals.

Limit your processed food intake

Processed foods like chips, cookies, deli meats, deep-fried foods, frozen meals, and sugary breakfast cereals are high in energy but tend to lack important nutrients like fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Instead these foods are high in sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats (saturated fat). 

When these foods are eaten in excess and consistently over a prolonged period of time, they can lead to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart diseases, and certain cancers. (2)

Although sodium is an essential nutrient that aids in fluid balance and normal nerve and muscle function in our body, Canadians are consuming waaaaaaaay too much of it! (3) In fact, we are consuming on average more than double the recommended amount of sodium - exactly 3400mg/day (recommended amount is 1500mg/day). (4) The main culprit to our excess sodium intake comes from processed foods, specifically, baked goods, mixed dishes, processed meats, cheeses, soups, sauces, dips, gravies, and condiments (2). 

To curve your sodium intake, try preparing most of your meals and snacks from scratch - that way you know exactly what you are putting into your food. If time is an issue and preparing meals from scratch isn’t in the cards, choose packaged foods that are low in sodium. The percent Daily Values (%DV) on the Nutrition Facts Table is a handy tool to guide your sodium choices on packaged foods. If the food item has a %DV of 15% or more, just know that is considered a lot of sodium! Choose items that are less than 15%.

Sugar is a type of carbohydrate naturally found in vegetables, fruits, milk and dairy products. Free sugar is a type of sugar that is added to products and are naturally found in high amounts in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates. (2)

Excess consumption of sugar can be a concern as it can lead to tooth decay, cavities, weight gain, and chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. (5)

Of all the food sources that sugar can be found in, sugar sweetened beverages like soft drinks, energy drinks, specialty coffee drinks, flavoured milks, sweetened plant-based beverages, and fruit juices, are among the top sources of sugar consumption in Canada. (5)

To reduce your sugar consumption, make water your drink of choice! If water doesn’t fancy you, try adding fruit for flavour or sparkling water for some fizz. 

Saturated fat is a type of fat that is mainly found in processed foods and animal-based products like cream, butter, cheese, and fatty meats. It can also be found in some plant-based foods like coconut and palm kernel oil. (2

Swap unhealthy fats with healthier fats, like unsaturated fats (salmon, avocados, olive oil, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc.), to lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. (2

In the end, eating whole, minimally processed foods is the way to go to reduce your consumption of sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats. BUT it is okay to enjoy processed foods from time to time! Life is a balancing act, and so is our diet!

Take time to practice mindful eating

We have all been there! After a long day of classes, we plop ourselves down in front of our laptop to enjoy our dinner and indulge in a couple of episodes of our favourite TV series on Netflix.  But then you get to the end of the episode and have just finished your meal without being able to fully enjoy the different flavours your meal had to offer...what did I just eat again?!

It is easy to get caught up in the cycle of eating our meals and snacks in front of our devices or while we are cranking out a study session. But taking the time to sit down and focus on your meal can help you fully enjoy your meal and pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues.

Eat with others when you can

The kitchen table is more than just a spot to study (undergrad me - wait what?!) - it’s the ultimate unifier. 

It’s the perfect spot to hit pause on your school work and all the other busy things that take up space in your life to reconnect, build friendships, and catch up with your equally stressed out peers.

Sharing meals with others not only helps your emotional and mental wellbeing, but it can be an opportunity to try new foods and share healthy recipes with your friends.  

Although it may not be realistic to share EVERY meal with your roommates or university besties, it is all the more special when you can and do! 

To kick start this new habit, pick a day or evening that works best for everyone to prepare and share a meal together - whether that be Friday night pizza night, Saturday morning pancakes, meal prep Sunday, or a meatless Monday dinner - start with a small goal in mind and make it fun for everyone!

In Conclusion

Healthy eating does not just involve what you eat but how you eat!

Although university can be hectic at times, it is important to nourish yourself with a variety of healthy foods and take the time to slow down and recharge by sharing meals with friends and enjoying the foods on your plate.

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