A UBC Okanagan researcher warns that bad eating habits developed during post-secondary study might lead to future health problems including obesity, respiratory ailments, and depression.
Joan Bottorff, a professor with UBCO's School of Nursing, is one of several international researchers who published a multi-site study looking at the eating habits of university students.
Almost 12,000 medical students from 31 universities in China participated in the study that aimed to determine the association between eating behaviours, obesity and various diseases. The point, says Bottorff, is that many poor eating habits begin at university and can continue for decades.
"We know many students consume high-calorie meals along with sugary foods and drinks and there is lots of evidence to show those kinds of eating behaviours can lead to obesity," says Bottorff. "These are not the only habits that lead to obesity, but they are important and can't be ruled out."
The study, published recently in Preventive Medicine Reports, was led by Shihui Peng with the School of Medicine at China's Jinan University.
While there is well-established research that links unhealthy diets to many chronic diseases, this study aimed to show a relationship between poor eating habits and infectious diseases including colds and diarrhea.
Bottorff notes, due to the nature of the study, it was not possible to show cause and effect but the relationship between poor eating habits, obesity and respiratory illnesses were well supported.
"There has been biomedical research that also supports this link between obesity and infectious diseases, and most recently this has been related to COVID-19," she adds.
"We know from some of the recent publications related to COVID-19, obese people were more likely to have severe conditions and outcomes. Reasons that have been offered for this increased vulnerability include impaired breathing from the pressure of extra weight and poorer inflammatory and immune responses."
A typical student diet of high-sugar or high-calorie foods can become a long-term issue as these habits can lead to obesity. Dr. Bottorff says there is evidence to show that stress and anxiety can cause overeating, but overeating can also lead to stress and depression.
"The bottom line here is that we shouldn't be ignoring this risk pattern among young people at university. It is well documented that a significant portion of students have unhealthy diets," she adds.
"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 disease but also infectious diseases."
While Dr. Bottorff says students should be taught about healthy eating while at university the onus should be on the school to provide healthy, and affordable, food options for all students.
"We need to think about the food environment that we provide students. We need to ensure that in our cafeterias and vending machines, there are healthy food options so that they can eat on the go but also make healthy food choices."
It's not an issue going unnoticed. UBC Student Wellness and Food Services work together to address food security and food literacy and recognize that a lack of affordable food options, coupled with the stress of university life, can negatively impact students' food choices.
Food insecure students have access to a low-barrier food bank and a meal share program. Meanwhile, UBCO Food Services' culinary team prioritizes local, organic and sustainably-sourced ingredients, and works with a registered dietitian to ensure a wide variety of food options are available to all diners.
Bottorff agrees there have been improvements to food options in cafeterias and notes the drinks in many vending machines have been rearranging so healthier items are at eye-level and sugary choices are lower down.
"I know many post-secondary schools are trying to figure out how we can do better and are trying to address these problems," she adds. "It's great, because four or five years ago, we weren't. So, I think we're on the right road, but I think we're a long way from finished."