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Nutrition takes a backseat

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Price is the priority:Students give scant importance to healthy food.Photo: Meeta Ahlawat
Price is the priority:Students give scant importance to healthy food.Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

ollege is a time for experimentation. A time for finding yourself, learning about new subjects and making friends. And apparently, it’s also a time for junk food. A recent visit to three canteens at Delhi University revealed that students are espousing a common view: munch now, worry about health later.

First stop was a visit to Miranda House, a girls’ college where we spoke with Shraetima, a third year economics student who eats at the canteen because her accommodation is some 2.5 hours from the college. She felt that the current caterers were superior to the previous in terms of hygiene but as far as health was concerned? “Not really.” Indeed, she told us that health food in general is “not a priority” for college students. Her favourite food is a masala dosa which she orders because it is cheap, hygienic and tasty. She felt that she had “no other option” besides this fried, unhealthy food. “They are not giving us any green vegetables but I think this is how the canteens are, you get all of the junk food there.”

Serious consequences

These consumption habits don’t just pack on the pounds, they can also lead to serious health consequences. “Low fruit and vegetable consumption is an important risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs),”explained Dr. Renu Garg, the WHO regional advisor for NCDs, “WHO recommends at least five servings of fruits and vegetables to reduce the risk of cardio-vascular diseases and some cancers.”

When Shraetima was asked about whether she had the recommended daily servings, she looked all but shocked. “Are we supposed to get five?”

Stop number two was at the Delhi School of Economics aka ‘D-School’ where we happened upon a special meal, a 20{+t}{+h}birthday lunch between three young men from three different colleges. They were ringing in this special day with, what else? Some delicious but greasy junk food. “We don’t care much if it’s healthy,” explained the friends, “students don’t have prioritisation of healthy food...cheap is the number one priority.”

They weren’t concerned about their health because they stayed active with lots of walking and the occasional recreational sports pursuit. But what about later in life when their metabolisms slowed down? Were they worried about the long-term consequences of their greasy munchings? “No. High blood pressure is something in old age. We kind of assume whatever you do until you’re 40 has no effect.” And beyond 40? “We take it as a given that once you turn 50 or 60 than you will either have high blood pressure or diabetes so that’s also very normal,” joked one boy.

Metabolic risk factor

They were obviously diligent lads having a good bit of schoolboy fun. Unfortunately high blood pressure is no joke and his predication may well turn out to be accurate. One in three adults in the 11 countries of WHO’s South East Asian Region have high blood pressure and nearly 1.5 million people die due to high blood pressure in the region every year. High blood pressure is considered a “metabolic risk factor” for NCDs such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease. Consider that according to a WHO report from 2011, NCDs accounted for 53 per cent of all deaths in India — making them the biggest killer in the country.

Dr. Garg also disagreed with the assumption that disease is a given once you turn 50: “Nearly 80 per cent of heart disease and type 2 diabetes can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle such as never smoking, eating a healthy diet high in fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fat, salt and free sugars, avoiding harmful use of alcohol and use of regular physical activity.” She explained that college was an important time to start these healthy habits because “that is when behaviours are shaped”.

Lack of options

In an effort to see when, exactly, these unhealthy habits were forming, I spoke to three young women, all 1{+s}{+t}year English Honours students who had just started their university careers. Day students, they still ate nutritious meals at home but felt that “most students don’t worry about eating healthy due to ignorance, lack of time and lack of options.” They unanimously felt that their own eating habits had become less healthy. During her short time at university, for example, one of the girls had already begun a new tradition: drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola every day, something she had never done at home.

Fixing responsibility

The students voiced mixed opinions when asked about whether colleges should intervene to make canteens healthier. One of the young men at the D-School canteen felt that the college did have a responsibility to teach health to its students: “We are eating all of this because it is what is available. But what if the college provided nutritious food at the same cost?” he wondered. “It’s not that we don’t want to eat rice and dal — probably if the college has more variety then we would eat that every day. But now it’s not available.” His friend, however, countered that students would shun healthy fare in favour of the cheap, greasy stuff.

Supply and demand

For the canteen operators it was as simple as supply and demand. “Whatever the demand of the students is, we try to fill it,” explained Anil Burman of Shiva Caterers which supplies to the Hindu College canteen. His menu was determined solely based on the demands of the students. “College students simply prefer to have junk food,” he said with a shrug. He added that the college was not responsible for healthy eating choices. That responsibility, he felt, lay at home: “Parents should develop the healthy habits”.

Wherever the responsibility lies, it’s clear that students are not as invincible as they might feel. “The eating and lifestyle habits developed in adolescence can have an impact on health down the road. Some of these diseases may happen later in life but the risk develops much earlier,” cautioned Dr. Garg , “ healthy lifestyles must be inculcated early in life.”

(The writer is the 2013-2014 Stanford-NBC News Fellow in Media and Global Health)

Health is the last thing on the minds of university students as they feed on greasy junk food at college canteens in Delhi University


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