Stressed about exams, relationships or career choices? College students need to watch their food habits, exercise and sleep pattern, says Geeta Padmanabhan

They are well-dressed, well-informed, and a lot of them are well-heeled. They attend college, hang out in popular spots, gather at cinemas, shop at malls, and never miss family functions and festivals. This on-the-move crowd has added a must-visit to its packed days: nutrition clinics.

“We receive 15-20 college students every month at our clinic,” said Ryan Fernando, co-founder/nutrition expert, Qua Nutrition. “Most are for cases related to weight-loss and acne. A few are for hair loss and anaemia.” The number of youngsters complaining of acidity is “rising steadily and should be addressed to avoid long-term complications,” says an IANS report. “Even where weight is not a concern, overall poor nutrition habits (food high in saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium and low in fibre) are linked to health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, iron deficiency,” said a concerned Mitalee Doshi, co-founder/nutrition consultant, oomph-nutrition.com. “Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are seen more among college girls than among the general population.”

“Why” is a no-brainer. Half-hearted breakfast at home, junk food, no sustained physical exercise, late nights, stress. Result: a burning sensation in the stomach, reflux, burping, tooth problems, throat infection. In extreme cases, says WHO, frequent acidity can lead to cancer of the oesophageal pipe. This FB generation has adopted a grab-on-the-go attitude, said Doshi. “With all-time high aspiration levels and hunger to live life to the fullest, they become careless about health and nutrition. Unfortunately, the crazy schedule of student life often leads students to skip meals, snack at odd hours and over-eat when dealing with stress. Add frequenting junk-food parties, late night studying and a sedentary (digital) life — you have a recipe for kilo pile-up. Their food is calorie-dense, nutritionally inadequate.”

While quick bites and alcohol are “not healthy”, the bigger issue is “image”, said Fernando. Girls diet to be zero-size, boys take weight-gain pills for six-pack looks. There’s a mismatch between eating patterns and metabolism. What students need is a well-balanced diet from all food groups and physical activity, said Doshi. It is 1400-2600 calories depending on age, height and activity levels. Fibre is important to prevent diseases, control weight gain, digestive health. Protein (1 gm/kg body weight) is crucial to build muscles. Iron, calcium and zinc keep out anaemia and osteoporosis. Iron, vitamin C and zinc keep the immune system in shape, calcium is necessary for women to get bone-mass. Folate promotes protein absorption, helps cell growth and division, forms red blood cells. All these are often lacking in student diets. The 18-24-years segment should turn focus on nutrition, said Fernando. Parents can get a genetic test done and gift them with a dietary plan before they fly the nest. “Give them the gift of learning to eat for life.” If they are swotting for exams, they are also starving, added Doshi. “Food brands with deep marketing pockets target this group with lucrative offers as it has a disposable income and considerably less savings ratio.”

In her book The Dorm Room Diet, Daphne Oz (daughter of Dr. Oz) warns of five “danger zones of college student nutrition.” Acknowledging “situations unique to college life that make it difficult to stick to healthful habits and better nutrition” she urges students to pull out of the five zones: Stay away from making-the-deadline-zone that involves study marathons and all-nighters, she says. Instead of processed food and coffee/tea to keep awake stock up on fruits, baby carrots, nuts, low-cal snacks and sugar-free vitamin drinks. Set the alarm to get up for healthy bites and short walks, have alternate warm/cold face washes.

It’s ironical that you should ruin your health sitting at sports stadiums! Munch on salads instead of chips/cutlets/burgers, and drink water. Your celebration/disappointment makes no difference to the team. Eat a fruit before donning the party dress, position yourself away from the food table. Chew gum. Hold a glass of water so your hands don’t wander toward the snack tray. The healthy snacks regimen applies if you’re a TV buff. Finally, go for smaller portions when net-working late into the night.

Being solely responsible for meal choices, college freshers use food as coping mechanism when classes and relationships get stressful, said a nutritionist. “There is no PE class, school sports are forgotten — resulting in total lack of exercise. Get plugged in, join clubs, don’t isolate yourself.” Try different exercises, enjoy those indoor and outdoor activities. Eat regularly and wisely, have a variety of foods, keep your plate colourful with fruits, vegetables, protein, grains. Get enough sleep.