Can the College Student Diet be Fixed?

Ozzy Anguiano

I was diagnosed with prediabetes in August. I had some routine blood work done, and my hemoglobin A1C levels came in at 5.8, which meant that in the past three months, my blood sugar levels were high enough to put me on the pipeline to type 2 diabetes. I was scared of a future in which I wouldn’t be able to eat my favorite foods, and one where I would add routine blood testing to my daily life.
I was also frustrated because I felt like I did that to myself. I wouldn’t have been in that situation if it weren’t for my horrible college student diet.

My eating habits took a nosedive for the worst, starting my freshman year at CSUN. College staples like instant noodles replaced the home-cooked Mexican food I was used to back home. I also began eating fast food more than I used to once I began part-timing as a pizza driver. I turned to eating the cheapest fast food meals I could buy practically every day for convenience’s sake since I was so busy at school and work.

By my senior year, my college eating habits had earned me an extra 40 pounds, in addition to the prediabetes diagnosis.

I’m not alone in having an unhealthy diet during my time at college. Unhealthy eating habits are common among college students due to high levels of food insecurity. Food insecurity means a lack of access to healthy foods, often because they are expensive or there isn’t a nearby store selling fresh food.
“Some students tend to make difficult choices between paying for their tuition, housing, and eating healthy foods,” said Eirenel Eclevia, a nutritionist at CSUN’s Marilyn Magaram Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics.

College students turn to unhealthy options when eating healthy food becomes inconvenient. Easy-to-make processed foods are more convenient compared to home cooking. Instant ramen is the ubiquitous college student meal. Most dorm rooms have at least a case of it lying around. Take a look at the Matador Mercados on campus, and you’ll find entire shelves of different variants of mac and cheese.

Though cheap and convenient, instant ramen and mac and cheese do not provide all the nutrients a person needs and can be damaging if eaten in excess. A balanced meal consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and a protein source. Each food group provides different nutrients the human body needs to stay healthy, such as iron in spinach or Vitamin D in tuna.

According to Eclevia, instant ramen and mac and cheese mainly provide simple starchy carbohydrates. A lack of proper nutrition can lead to health issues. “Inadequate nutrition can lead to many problems, especially developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes,” said Eclevia.
Fast food is another convenient yet unhealthy college student favorite. Foods like chicken strips and pizza are commonly served by establishments on any college campus. These restaurants are suitable for students who don’t pack lunch, and they make for an excellent spot to have a lunch break with some friends. Fast food is notorious, however, for being much less healthy than home-cooked food. The high consumption of fast food is linked to obesity. Eclevia said the one fast food meal often contains a day’s worth of calories, carbs, sodium and fat.

Are students just destined to be malnourished until we graduate? Well, when it comes to combating malnutrition, Eclevia says, “knowledge is power.” That statement rang true in my case. After seeing my lab results, I quickly used online resources to learn about the nutritional value of foods and how they affected my body. I was referred to see a dietitian who taught me how to balance my meals. As I became more knowledgeable about nutrition, my diet became more well-rounded, and I’m now at a healthier weight.

There are resources available at CSUN for students seeking nutritional assistance. CSUN students, faculty, or staff can pick up groceries once a week at the CSUN Food Pantry. The panty will also help students sign up for CalFresh, the state program that offers financial aid for food. For nutrition counseling, students can speak with a dietitian at the Klotz Student Health Center for free or contact the CSUN Marilyn Magaram Center, which hosts nutrition-related events.
Eating healthy may seem expensive and time-consuming for many students, but making meals healthier can be pretty simple and cheap. Just a couple of ingredients could change the nutritional value of a meal. For example, Eclevia recommends adding a vegetable and a protein, such as spinach and an egg, to instant ramen to make it a more balanced meal. Frozen vegetables are a budget-minded option as they tend to be cheaper than fresh ones while retaining the same nutritional value and lasting longer. Eggs, tuna and tofu are good sources of protein that are easy to prepare and can be had for a few bucks.

The stress of college life and the financial stress that comes with it can make it pretty hard to eat healthily, but it’s not impossible. With a dose of mindfulness and some help from the various nutrition sources at CSUN, anyone can progress towards a healthy diet.