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Jonathon De Oliveira investigates the stereotype that students have an unhealthy diet. Some of the main reasons for an unhealthy diet are stress and financial burden, should the Uni be doing more to help student’s nutrition?

The stereotypical student eating habits are notorious. In the eyes of some, we feast on frozen meals and cram down kebabs with great abandon, without sparing nutrition a second thought.

Is this a fair representation? How much of a difference do poor eating habits make to our health? And are the plethora of food consumption-related surveys and ‘scientific’ studies always a force for good in shaping perceptions and policy? Cheese toastie in hand, I decided to investigate.

‘I have one flat mate who gets a Subway at least four times a week’, remarked a friend and fellow Bristol student when I asked him what he knew about others’ diets. Clearly, for some, the stereotype can prove a reality.

For others, however, this could not be further from the truth. My girlfriend and her flatmates have transformed their kitchen into a positive laboratory of nutrition, constantly overflowing with balanced and literally beautiful meals.

For many of us, however, the reality is probably somewhere between these extremes. This is certainly the case for the majority of students I’ve quizzed. Most of the time we eat food that we’ve cooked ourselves, and it’s usually cheap but often also fairly healthy.

Indeed, a survey discovered that the most popular student dishes include spaghetti bolognaise, tuna pasta bake and baked potatoes.

This menu won’t be winning many Michelin stars, but it’s not too shabby on the nutritional front: high in fibre, protein, potassium and B vitamins. Moreover, the internet makes finding more exotic, yet quick and cheap, meals increasingly easy.

Scientific data can be presented somewhat misleadingly. Student diets are often not as bad as some suggest

Why, then, do some view the average student’s diet so negatively? Sensationalist reporting of scientific data doesn’t help.

For example, a 2006 survey of 3,412 Northern Irish university students states boldly in its conclusions that it is ‘striking’ that ‘only 28% of students said they prepared or cooked their main meal… fresh…  every day.’

This statistic is actually not surprising and nothing to worry about. The 28% here excludes those who batch cook – a cheaper and more time-efficient alternative to cooking every day, which is similarly nutritious.

So scientific data can be presented somewhat misleadingly. Student diets are often not as bad as some suggest. However, there are significant obstacles which hinder students’ dietary nutrition. Used well, pertinent data can shine a light on these burning issues.

 57% of students living off campus in rented accommodation said financial hardship had changed their diet

One such issue is the impact of students’ sizeable financial burden. The 2014 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey revealed that 57% of students living off campus in rented accommodation said financial hardship had changed their diet, with 67% of these saying they ate less healthily as a result.

Many of the people to whom I’ve spoken could relate to this, and also cited stress as a key reason for failing to cook healthily. Even the most immaculate nutritional regime can be shattered to pieces in the cold, cruel jaws of deadline or exam season. This is a real problem.

In the long term, a poorly balanced diet – with an excess of sugar, salt and red meat and a deficit of vitamins – can increase the likelihood of experiencing diabetes, high blood pressure, poor oral health, premature aging and cancer.

However, even a short blast of nutritional poverty can have a significant impact. A 2009 study suggested that fatty foods could have an immediate negative impact on brain function.

Moreover, lack of nutrients and carbohydrates, essential for the brain’s production of positivity-promoting chemicals serotonin and dopamine, can increase the likelihood of experiencing depressive moods. Here, we see mental and physical illness blurring together and it’s the last thing students need during assessment periods.

In fairness, the University of Bristol has acknowledged some of these issues. It offers bursaries of up to £2,000 for those most in need, and last year it offered free meals at the Refectory to first years living in the City Centre during the summer exam period. However, with an income surplus of £41.7 million last year, the University can certainly afford to do more to boost its students’ nutrition.

Such an initiative would neatly complement Bristol’s role at the forefront of tackling nutritional problems on a global scale through research.

Earlier this month, two Bristol University professors unveiled before a raft of Europe’s top policy-makers the key findings of their section of the I.Family Study. This five-year international study examined the health of over 16,000 children in eight European countries.

Its key findings included that socio-economic status had a major effect on obesity rates and that children exposed to commercial TV are more likely to consume sweetened drinks. This is social science at its most pertinent.

So please, Bristol, follow in the footsteps of the brilliant researchers before you. Use scientific information clearly, fairly and for the good of society. And as for you, Bristol University governance – free exam period meals for second years, please…

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