Eating Healthy vs University Life: How I Started Getting a Grip

 Several students often find it a struggle to maintain balanced and healthy eating habits while at university. If you are used to having your meals ready-made for you by your parents, things will start to look a little challenging, demanding, and even the simple tasks that used to appear easy will start to look hard. In this respect, I would like to say: welcome to university life, where no one is around to support you in staying healthy, and where you have to plan your meals and cook them yourself. It is, therefore, time to start being self-reliant and start taking proper care of yourself. In other words, it is time to start managing your day-to-day tasks yourself; whether they involve cooking, cleaning or just tidying up your surroundings. Although it is hard for everyone to cope with such changes, especially during your first steps in what can be considered the "adult" world, you will be conditioned to do so in spite of the procrastination, propensity to shirk,  and lack of time or energy. Most importantly, maintaining healthy eating habits is the most challenging and daunting task you will face. In the face of several compelling and tempting factors such as budget, time limitations, peer-pressure, sugar and alcohol cravings, students will bear the weight of the mountains.

You must eat to stay both efficient and active, but you should be sure to eat healthy food so you are always in good shape and make sure not to splash out your precious money on takeaways and food from restaurants, no matter how tempting they are. Always cook your own meals, this is cheaper and healthier than all the other alternatives. We have all probably heard similar expressions when we moved to university, especially from our parents, who would be quite worried about their children as they lack the proper experience of managing their meals and food budget. I, personally, have encountered different kinds of students whose eating habits were sometimes quite frightening. A number of these students mainly lived on takeaways, canned or frozen food and sandwiches. Others devoured sweets and pastries, while others, the “cooking virgins” as I call them, used to forget the food in the oven until it was smokey and dark! Not to mention the number of students who tended to drink unreasonably after moving away from their parents’ censorship. Yet, as time moved on, several students I knew started to notice various undesirable effects this kind of lifestyle had on either their performance, health, weight and even finances.

Through the scope of my experience as an international student, I would say that I have had an unpleasant journey with food and cooking. Namely, experiencing a new food culture and a persistent necessity to keep an eye on my food expenditure was never easy. To be honest, I was overwhelmed when I stepped inside the supermarkets and came across loads of food products placed on the large shelves. In my home country, people tend to be a little picky and vigilant when it comes to selecting food products and prefer homemade meals from scratch with fewer additives to ready-made meals, especially in the smaller cities. I would also say that I struggled significantly when I went shopping for food; trying to recognize different food products, checking the ingredients, producers, the country of origin. Consequently, I was quite intimidated and terrified by the number of additives and chemical products added to the food and was not able to understand the reason behind packing the vegetables and fruits in plastic!

Thus, I ended up solely consuming bread, fat-free yoghurt and a few kinds of vegetables and fruits. I even stopped eating sweets because I was not able to detect any familiar ingredient in them except the sugar that was added in excessive amounts, I was on such a strict diet I had never before experienced. Adding to this diet my hectic academic schedule, I ended up having fewer meals and as such lost a noticeable amount of weight. The outcome of my actions worried me and thus I decided to act before I got anaemia or any related health issue. As a consequence, here is what I did to enjoy tasty but also safe, affordable and healthy food.

Firstly, I recommend avoiding doing your shopping while you are hungry. You will simply end up buying loads of products and half of them will be unhealthy. Try to have a filling meal before you shop for food. A little advice:  if you are too worried about the ingredients, the producers or the production environment and conditions of the food you pick, I advise you to do some quick research and check the ingredients of the products you are interested in online so that you don’t spend a long time in the supermarket and end up being confused or disappointed. I additionally started stepping a little away from the supermarkets and checking out the smaller shops that sell locally made and grown products. That decision was indeed helpful and eye-opening because it helped me to discover shops that sell natural, varied and tasty products at affordable prices. I learned that we should not just be worried about feeding ourselves, but also be interested in the production processes of our food, whether they are ecologically and human-friendly or not, as well as supporting small and local businesses. Moreover, I decided to find a way to enjoy sweet and delicious bakeries but stay healthy and safe at the same time. So, I started replacing the ingredients! Namely, if you have a sweet tooth or love richly flavoured food, you may wish to mash dates or sultanas and use them to bake savoury sweets instead of the usual sugary kind, or you can use olive oil instead of vegetable oil and avocado instead of butter. Actually, there are loads of ideas and ingredients you are able to play with!

However, if you are on a short budget or don’t have enough time to cook, I suggest you eat filling food products such as lentils, peas, and beans. They are cheap, highly nutritious and filled with minerals and vitamins. But if you don’t have enough time, it is always worth preparing food for the coming days during the weekend and have fun trying new recipes or cook from scratch.  Why not try making your own bread, sweets, tomato sauce or even hummus and pesto?  This may seem hard at first, but after a few trials, you will have delicious and healthy food, and feel proud of yourself. At any stage, nonetheless, if you face any eating issues, poor or excessive appetite, it is always worth contacting a dietician and asking them to help you manage your food program. I used to live with different students from different backgrounds and I found it helpful because I learned different cooking ideas and tricks. Therefore, it is also really helpful if you interact with others, especially your flatmates, and ask them about their food preferences and cooking ideas; it's a good way to socialize and get to know other people as well.

To sum up, maintaining healthy eating habits at university will seem baffling, daunting and even time-consuming at first. Yet, you should be aware that the whole experience is not mainly about feeding yourself, but rather about being self-reliant, becoming aware of what you eat and learning the best way to enjoy both healthy and delicious food.