Post-secondary students are known to be busy but not great eaters, hence terms like ‘freshman 15’, referring to the pounds added by someone in their first year at college or university.
But are poor eating habits impacting students’ mental health?
According to the Dieticians of Canada and a Durham College nutritionist, the answer is ‘yes’.
“The increased incidence in mental health conditions such as depression over recent years might be linked to the change in our diet over the same time frame, with shifts away from a diet based on a wide variety of whole foods to one that emphasizes more processed foods.”
Sylvia Emmorey, Durham College’s nutritionist, agrees.
“A lot of times people are skipping meals, going to class on an empty stomach, you can’t think as well, your memory is impaired,” says Emmorey.
Over the years, Emmorey says she has noticed an increase in students not eating often, lacking energy, having poor memory and being tired. She says not eating frequently enough, or not eating well, can negatively affect blood sugar, and in turn affect one’s mental health.
“Managing the blood sugars, regulating the blood sugars is very important for proper brain function. People can have a lot of mood imbalances if they go without food as well,” says Emmorey.
Emmorey advises students to avoid unhealthy fats, such as cookies and doughnuts, as they interfere with signalling in the brain. She also mentions it has been shown in studies that people who eat more unhealthy fats are slower learners and have memory challenges.
“Eating a lot of unhealthy foods, junk foods if you will, can lead to depression because it depletes vitamins and minerals in the body. It also increases stress,” says Emmorey.
She says when people are stressed, they tend to crave unhealthy foods. They also sometimes drink alcohol, which damages the brain.
Omega 3 is found in healthy fats, such as avocados or fish. It helps support the synapses in the brain that connect the neurons. Omega 3 deficiencies have been shown to cause an increased risk of ADHD, bi-polar disorder, dyslexia, depression, dementia and schizophrenia. To avoid a deficiency, Emmorey recommends eating a variety of foods every day.
“The more colourful, the better,” she says.
Emmorey recommends starting a food diary or journal to help keep track of what and how much students are eating.
“You can look at it, link it to how you’re feeling and make changes or come to me so I can guide you through the changes slowly,” says Emmorey.
Emmorey emphasizes being mindful of what and how you’re eating.
“I’ve coined the term ‘the gobble-and-go generation’ because people eat their food so fast.”
She says being aware of how much you’re eating and how you’re eating it helps with digestions and can help students avoid things like acid reflux and some digestive disorders.
Emmorey says she understands changing eating habits can be difficult, but after she works with students making baby steps, she notices a difference.
“I think a lot of the things that I see from students is a change in energy, first of all when they start to eat healthy and decrease some of the unhealthy foods, and that kind of sparks their interest in continuing on.”
She advises students to prioritize grocery shopping and meal prep. For a student on a budget, Emmorey suggests buying frozen fruits and veggies, cans or bags of beans, lentils, tuna and shopping for deals.
Emmorey has been a part-time teacher at Durham College for more than 10 years. She’s available to speak to students about healthy eating, eating with certain health conditions, weight loss or gain. She describes it as “nutritional counselling.” She is available Thursdays 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in room C111.
“Basic healthy diet with some more variety is very beneficial for students and will get them – I think – through school with a diploma in their hand and not too much stress, hopefully,” says Emmorey.