Published July 31st, 2017
University isn’t a healthy place. Sure you’re getting an education and making BFFs, but you’re also perpetually broke and eating junk food every day. So how does that lifestyle affect your health? A 2012 report found that two thirds of Australian students were actually living below the poverty line, which indicates there are some pretty sad culinary stories out there
To investigate, we contacted two GPs who regularly see students. Dr Rashmi Saluja is a GP based in Carlton who receives students from Melbourne Uni, while Associate Professor Ian Marshall is the medical director of Sydney University’s health clinic. We asked each for the sort of cases they’ve seen and what they’ve observed about student diets.
VICE: Hey Rashmi, can you tell me what the typical student eats?
Dr Rashmi Saluja: From what I see, a lot of students have poor diets. They’re generally just eating takeaway. The worst diet I’ve seen was this one student who every week ate just Mcdonalds and KFC. It wasn’t because they were lazy though. They told me it was because it was much cheaper than buying groceries.
Was this the most serious case you’ve seen?
No, there was another person. This girl I remember who was quite young but had osteoporosis because of her diet. She was homeless and was only eating whatever she got her hands on. As you can imagine, this wasn’t a balanced diet.
You seem to be suggesting both of these cases were caused by poverty.
Well on one end of the spectrum there are the students with no money or no time so they eat a lot of fast food. Then on the other end are students who get into food fads. There are a lot of students eating no carbs, but drinking more. That’s a big thing—drinking a lot. But they also want to cut down their calories by not eating.
So eating disorders are common?
Yes, or just problems that can end up as eating disorders. I often see students spending so much money on naturopaths because they think they have a gluten intolerance, or a lactose intolerance, or irritable bowel syndrome, but they’re actually just eating badly.
Can diet also affect your mental health? Have you seen that happen?
It happens so often. I have filled out so many special consideration forms for students because of their mental health, which I believe began as a problem with their diets. Eating disorders are sadly common. I remember one student who came in with mental health issues, and that came from bingeing and purging and I signed her special consideration form because she had to drop out of the course. This is sadly common.
Associate Professor Ian Marshall, is the medical director of Sydney University’s health clinic. He has over 17 years of experience treating students both here and overseas.
Hi Ian, can you give me a broad overview about the worst kind of issues you see in students?
Dr. Ian Marshall: We see a lot of immune system issues, regular respiratory infections, and iron storage problems. I also see cases of fatigue and various psychological issues.
I haven’t seen someone with scurvy, but we’ve had a lot of cases where there’s been iron deficiencies, B12 deficiencies, or folic acid deficiencies. That’s prevalent among female patients. They’re often iron deficient during menstruation, and particularly if they can’t afford meat. The worst case of this was when someone had iron-deficient anemia because there wasn’t nearly enough iron in their diet.
What about the strangest diet you’ve seen?
One patient of mine was fixated on eating carrots. They ate carrots for every meal and as a result, they became carrot anemic and their skin and eyes became orange.
So your student patients tend to be either broke or misinformed?
It’s a combination of finances, stress, and immaturity. These students have grown up with other people cooking for them. Now, they’re living away from home and they’re not used to it. This, combined with academic pressures, means they go for whatever is cheap and easy. There’s peer influence as well. Our students tell us they’ve heard stories of how other students worked all night because they had three red bulls so then they’ll try it.
Are there any students who are more likely to have a poorer diet and lifestyle than others?
What I’ve noticed is that it’s the international, interstate, and rural students who are more vulnerable to stress. They experience far more pressure to succeed because of their family’s investment in their education. Because of this, they feel that if they don’t succeed they’ll have failed their families.
“Unhealthy” is a strong word. I don’t think university is an unhealthy environment, rather it’s a snapshot of the real world. Sure, there’s this pressure on students to achieve, but that exists in the workforce as well. What this represents to me is an indicator of a much bigger problem. A societal problem.
What’s the societal problem?
University is lot more competitive now, with student numbers having risen enormously. In my day passes were acceptable but that’s not the case anymore. There’s this need to be successful academically because there’s no guarantee for a job if you just have a basic degree. There’s this huge amount of pressure right at the beginning to get high-distinctions to go on to do masters, and PhDs. And not everyone can get high distinctions, so there’s this additional pressure of failure. On top of this, most of our students have jobs as well because living expenses have risen. Students are now having to work to support themselves. And as a result, there’s less time which means there’s less of a priority on eating well. Lack of time and money are important factors in all of this.