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Poor eating habits can lead to lifelong diseases

A team of researchers led by the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) has recently found that poor eating habits among students during post-secondary studies – which often continue for decades – can contribute to a variety of future health issues, including obesity, respiratory diseases, and depression. 

“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 behaviors can lead to obesity,” said senior author Jean Bottorff, a professor of Health Promotion and Cancer Prevention at UBCO. “These are not the only habits that lead to obesity, but they are important and can’t be ruled out.”

To determine the association between eating behaviors, obesity, and various diseases, the scientists examined the eating habits of nearly 12,000 medical students from 31 universities in China. While previous research found significant links between eating behaviors and several chronic diseases, this study also uncovered correlations between such habits and infectious diseases such as colds or diarrhea. 

“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,” Bottorff said. “We know from some of the recent publications related to Covid-19 that 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.” 

According to the researchers, while the stress and anxiety students often experience can lead to overeating, eating high-sugar or high-calorie foods can also cause stress and depression, and lead to obesity and a variety of other chronic or infectious illnesses. To avoid this, it is not sufficient for students to be taught about eating healthy while at university. Schools should also be able 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,” Bottorff explained.

At UBCO, the Student Wellness and Food Services are currently struggling to address food security and food literacy, while raising awareness that a lack of affordable food options, along with the stress of university life, can negatively affect students’ food choices. 

Moreover, food insecure students have now access to a low-barrier food bank and a meal share program, while UBCO Food Services’ culinary experts prioritize local, organic, and sustainably-sourced ingredients, and collaborate with a registered dietitian to make sure that a variety of healthy foods are available to all diners. Finally, drinks in many vending machines have been rearranged so that 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. 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,” Bottorff concluded.

The study is published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.

More about the connection between diet and health

Diet plays a crucial role in maintaining overall health and well-being, and it can significantly impact the risk of developing various diseases and conditions. Here are some key aspects of the connection between diet and health:

Nutrient intake

A balanced and nutritious diet provides essential nutrients, including carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water, that are necessary for the proper functioning of the body. These nutrients are involved in vital processes such as energy production, growth and development, immune function, and maintenance of bodily tissues.

Disease prevention

A healthy diet can help prevent various chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and obesity. For instance, consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins while limiting the intake of processed foods, sugary drinks, and unhealthy fats has been associated with a lower risk of developing these conditions.

Weight management

Diet plays a central role in maintaining a healthy weight. Consuming a diet that is high in nutrient-dense foods, low in added sugars and unhealthy fats, and appropriate in portion sizes can help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Excess weight or obesity increases the risk of numerous health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, joint issues, and certain cancers.

Digestive health

The type and quality of food we eat can influence our digestive health. A diet rich in dietary fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, can promote regular bowel movements, prevent constipation, and maintain a healthy gut. Additionally, consuming an appropriate amount of water is crucial for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Mental health

Emerging research suggests a connection between diet and mental health. A healthy diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, may support optimal brain function and reduce the risk of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety.

It’s important to note that individual nutritional needs may vary based on factors such as age, sex, activity level, and underlying health conditions. 

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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