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Student eating habits could lead to illness: study

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A steady diet of late night pizza, binge-drinking and sugary breakfast cereals is the norm for many post-secondary students, and new research suggests the lifestyle can cause harm that goes beyond gaining the proverbial freshman 15.

A recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Preventative Medicine Reports by a group of international researchers has found post-secondary students with unhealthy eating habits can go on to suffer from disease and mental health issues for years to come.

The research team examined nearly 12,000 medical students from 31 universities across China. 50.1 per cent of study participants had unhealthy eating habits—including eating sweets, fatty foods and overeating calories—while 24.9 per cent self-reported having chronic or infectious disease, or mental disorders.

Researchers say the study sheds some light on how unhealthy eating habits are associated with diseases and mental disorders, and “offers further support for a possible causal linkage.”

“The findings underscore the importance of addressing OEB (obesity-related eating behaviors) in programs and policies to support disease prevention and health promotion among university students,” researchers said in the study.

It was not possible for the study to show a cause and effect relationship, according to Dr. Joan Bottorff, professor with the University of British Columbia Okanagan’s School of Nursing and one of the researchers who conducted the study.

“It is well documented that a significant portion of students have unhealthy diets,” Bottorff said in a press release. “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 diseases but also infectious diseases.”

The study also took into account smoking and alcohol use and found an association with self-reported chronic diseases and mental health struggles in the students.

Canada’s alcohol consumption guidelines were updated this year and recommend two or less standard alcoholic beverages a week, which the Canadian Center for Substance Use and Addiction says is a level that will help in avoiding alcohol-related health issues.

“The bottom line here is that we shouldn’t be ignoring this risk pattern among young people at university,” says Bottorff.

The study authors write that while the government has increased its investment in nutrition for students, there are still necessary institutional changes that should be implemented, including increased accessibility to healthy food and drinks for students and more opportunities for physical activity.

“We know many students consume high-calorie meals along with sugary foods and drinks and there is a lot of evidence to show those kinds of eating behaviors that can lead to obesity,” said Dr. bottorff. “These are not the only habits that lead to obesity, but they are important and cannot be ruled out.”

However, past studies have shown that diet is an important factor in reducing illness. In fact, making healthy lifestyle choices reduces the risk of stroke by 80 per cent, according to one study. This could involve taking up the Mediterranean diet, which includes eating foods like olive oil, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, according to the study.

Further to this, study authors say that all universities and schools should have a health education curriculum to teach students the risk of their unhealthy habits and how they can better take care of themselves.