A University of British Columbia Okanagan researcher has issued a stark warning that the unhealthy eating habits often established during higher education can lead to serious future health problems, including obesity, respiratory illnesses, and depression.
Dr. Joan Bottorff, a professor with UBCO’s School of Nursing, was part of a multinational research team that analysed the eating habits of nearly 12,000 medical students from 31 universities in China. The goal of the study was to discern the link between eating behaviours, obesity, and various diseases. According to Dr. Bottorff, many damaging eating habits take root during university years and can persist for decades afterwards.
“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. These are not the only habits that lead to obesity, but they are important and can’t be ruled out,” Dr. Bottorff noted.
The research, recently published in Preventive Medicine Reports, was spearheaded by Dr. Shihui Peng of the School of Medicine at China’s Jinan University. Although the link between unhealthy diets and numerous chronic diseases is well-established, the study sought to demonstrate a relationship between poor eating habits and infectious diseases like colds and diarrhoea. While causality was not definitively established due to the nature of the study, the correlation between poor eating habits, obesity, and respiratory illnesses was strongly 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. 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,” Dr. Bottorff added.
The typical high-sugar, high-calorie diet common among students can become a long-term problem, potentially leading to obesity. Furthermore, Dr. Bottorff points out that there is evidence linking stress and anxiety to overeating, which in turn can contribute 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 stated. “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”.
Dr. Bottorff asserts that while students should indeed learn about healthy eating at university, the institutions themselves bear the responsibility of providing healthy and affordable food options. “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,” she urged.
Efforts to address these issues are ongoing. UBC Student Wellness and Food Services are working jointly to improve food security and food literacy, acknowledging that the combined stress of university life and a lack of affordable food options can negatively affect students’ food choices.
Food insecure students at UBCO have access to a low-barrier food bank and a meal share program. The university’s Food Services’ culinary team prioritises local, organic, and sustainably sourced ingredients, and collaborates with a registered dietitian to ensure a broad range of food options are available to all diners.
Dr. Bottorff recognises the positive strides made to improve food options in cafeterias, citing the reorganisation of vending machines to place healthier items at eye level, relegating sugary choices 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. 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,” she concluded.