Disclaimer – The dietary statements and advice shared in this article is the personal opinion and recommendation of the author. They are general guidelines which are spoken about widely from multiple research publications, studies and organizations related to health like WHO, AHA and more. Always do your own research and consult your doctor before making any sudden changes to your diet and lifestyle.

Food. One word and so many underlying emotions. Along with sleep and air, it is one of the non negotiable parts of our everyday life. In the modern world, with so many options, unimaginable variety and flavors to satisfy virtually any tastebud, food reigns supreme. We come together to consume it, enjoy its rich offering and in some cases even fight for it. As college going students, our range of options are incredibly high. From multiple messes offering vegetarian and non vegetarian cuisines, shops selling packaged goods, instantly consumable food products and delivery options like Swiggy and Zomato, our choices almost tend to be limitless. However despite how rosy the whole story sounds, there is some trouble in paradise. The health of various young adults is suffering by historically unseen extents. The rise of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer has gone from an extremely rare phenomenon to a rather common occurrence. Of course a lot of factors are responsible for the same – historically unprecedented levels of stress, extremely low sleep and bad habits to name a few. But one of the most important factors is what we put into our mouths. The food we eat impacts far more than one can realise. The right food can uplift your mood, improve your energy, make you smarter, increase your attention and help you do whatever you like. The wrong food on the other hand can take it all away. The purpose of this article is to help you understand the problem and recommend viable and tested solutions to protect your wellbeing.

We live in a time when there is an abundance of food. This is a totally unprecedented experience for centuries of evolution which has been built on the foundation that food is often scarce and a resource for survival. The current scenario of excess food enables the body to consume more calories than it is supposed to have – forcing the body to store the excess energy as fat. But we wish the discussion was as simple as this. One of the largest fallacies people make with respect to any form of food and nutrition is their over obsession about calories. The idea however is fundamentally flawed – an assortment of fruits on a platter which has the same impact on your body as a sundae don’t cause the same impact. Factors such as fiber, minerals and vitamins, secondary plant compounds etc make it far superior than a sundae loaded with sugar, artificial flavoring and fat. And the complexity is just getting started – there is a recommended daily allowed limit of various macro(fancy term for carbs, proteins and fats) and micro(vitamins and minerals) nutrients, anti nutrients which can leech some benefits from food, terribly destructive substances, like trans fats and HFCS, which even in minor amounts can greatly impair health, your metabolic rate, genetic disposition, physical activity….the list is endless. And honestly very overwhelming and frustrating. Who on Earth has the time to keep so much in mind while going to grab a bite to eat. Eating healthy keeping in mind all the different factors is like walking slowly through a minefield – scary, frustrating and truly difficult. Leaving aside some extremely strong willed people among us, the rest of us are more likely to reach for that slice of Pizza and hopefully drone out the entire “nutrition” discussion.

The whole idea of eating healthy food keeping in mind every point mentioned above (and much much more) is not sustainable at all. We are human and as discussed before – food is a part of our culture, our experience on Earth and one of the truly enjoyable aspects of life. So what can college students, low on money and high on stress do to solve this issue? Well there are some general pointers which are simple, take hardly any time and are light on the pocket which everyone can incorporate to take the first step to health. These primary pointers are –

Read the nutritional label

This is probably the easiest of all the tasks. If you buy any packaged product check the nutritional label. You may be surprised at what you learn.

Ensure you keep the following points in mind ideally –

  • Low sodium – watch out for sodium in most chips, packaged popcorn, sauce, ready to eat meals and more. Sodium is bad for the heart in excess. The recommended amount of sodium per day is 1500mg according to the WHO. Most of us can cross this without breaking a sweat with 2 packets of Doritos and Act II popcorn. The lower you can get sodium the better.
  • Low sugar – Try to keep sugar low. Its there in virtually everything these days. Natural sugars aren’t an issue – added sugar is. It spikes insulin, promoting fat storage and increasing risk of diabetes.
  • High fiber – Fiber is really good for the body. If your food has more fiber than sugar, it can even counteract a lot of the problems sugar brings by slowing down the release of glucose into the bloodstream. Although some products have artificially added fiber, a general rule of thumb is fiber is good for you.
  • 0 or extremely low trans fat – Trans fat is the big evil. Its directly responsible for heart failure and is extremely common in a number of foods. Staying away from it is the best choice. Its not very hard either – a lot of companies are actively removing them these days.

Read the ingredients list

While the nutritional label shares good insights into the quantity of various nutrients, ingredients enable you to understand the quality. While there are a lot of things to bear in mind, keep the following two points in mind –

  • Ingredients are written in descending order of composition – This means that the first few ingredients of the list are in greater quantity and concentration than the ones coming up later on. For example if sugar is the first on the list, it means the product is primarily sugar. Ensure the first 3-4 ingredients are good and healthy.
  • Ensure ingredients like HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) are not added – HFCS is a sweetener which is extremely detrimental to health. It isn’t the only one – many more such ingredients exist. A quick google search can help you understand what to avoid.

Increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables

Another undisputed advice given to all ages is that fruits and vegetables are good for you. They have a lot of vitamins, minerals, secondary compounds, anti oxidants and water too! Numerous studies have proven that increasing your fruit and vegetable intake by just one serving can greatly reduce risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Research multiple ways to ensure you enjoy consuming them – it can greatly improve your health and well being.

Increase your water intake

Water is the cleanser of your body. Good water intake of 2-4 liters per day based on your physical activity can lead to better skin, higher metabolism and also reduce your caloric intake. Water also helps move around your electrolytes, boosts immunity and is a good way to gain various minerals.

Eat a variety of foods – ensuring not to include the downright bad ones

Variety helps ensure you have a lot of different nutrients. It also helps ensure you consume lesser quantities of the bad stuff, thus ensuring your diet is inclusive, tasty and diverse. However, it is important to note that this shouldn’t turn into an excuse to eat downright bad foods – deep fried and high sugar foods.

Use substitution to get over addiction 

There are some foods we are truly addicted to. It’s hard to give them up. A useful strategy is substituting them for other better options. An example of this would be substituting your after dinner craving for dessert with 4-5 dates or raisins. Search for viable substitutes which can help replace your current addictions.

This list is clearly not exhaustive. It is just a couple of simple pointers which can make substantial changes to your life if you believe your current lifestyle is unhealthy. But all this said and done, don’t follow this rigidly. Having the occasional “cheat” meals, an extra slice of cake or indulging in instant noodles once in a while is part of the enjoyable aspect of food. There are many other habits which complement and reinforce the benefits of good diet like working out, sleeping better, managing stress better, meditation, 24 hour fasting to name a few. The goal is to make efforts to eat better, exercise greater will power and make better decisions. Talk to your friends and discuss if you have any issues which trouble you. A lot of people face the same issues and discussing together can help overcome them. Try persuading your friends to join you as well. As young adults, who will sooner or later become independent and earn for a living, inculcating habits of healthy eating and exercising will power can truly make a big difference in how we feel about ourselves, the people around us and even our relationship with Mother Earth.