Freshers: avoid the perils of the carbo-vodka diet
It’s your first term at university, and you’re loving it. You’ve embraced college life and, finally, freedom is yours. The first night away from home, student loan squashed into your sticky mitts, your new friends inform you that “eating is cheating”. Oh, OK then, you say, and crack on with drinking instead, being a proper fresher, consuming everything in your path in case a cry of “Down it, Fresher!” should go up from somewhere close by.
The first food shop might comprise a whip around the pasta aisle, and a more determined look at the spirits, before speeding to the checkouts. What do you plan to have for dinner every night? Carbs, carbs and more carbs! No sweat.
Cut to Christmas, nine weeks later. “You’re looking well, dear!” says Gran, in a tone that is reserved only for tactful suggestions of weight gain. Gulp. “Are you sure you want that last roast potato?” someone else asks, a little meanly. Yes, you’re sure.
It is a recognisable sequence of events. Go to university, eat lots – of the bad stuff – drink lots – of the even worse stuff – and promptly put on weight. But do you look that different? Not on your carbo-vodka diet? Apparently, you do. According to new research conducted by dairy drinks company Upbeat, nearly half of students gain weight in their first year, averaging a 10lb increase. This is the bit that the prospectus omits – it is an inconvenient detail lost.
The subject of student diets was raised on Radio 4’s Today Programme earlier this year, following another survey, this time conducted by Sainsbury’s. This showed that more than a third of students cannot boil an egg, and almost half are unable to rustle up a spaghetti bolognese. They might have the academic skills for the best universities in the country, but many have a cooking age of 12, the Don’t skip meals Start the day with someprotein – eggs or beans on toast – and you are less likely to want to snack
Avoid eating heavy starch-based meals late at night
Steer away from sugary drinks, however hard itmaybe
Fill up on protein and fibrous vegetables if you’re in catered accommodation, and choice is limited report says.
But who is to blame for this? Is it the parents, the children, or the beige food culture that is institutionalised at universities? A number of educationists believe that as a nation we have become too obsessed with doing everything for our children at university, and that part of the further education process should be to learn to be self-sufficient and resilient. Employers have continually criticised graduates for not being “work ready”, claiming that their steadfastness is lacking. But these inadequacies are in a professional capacity – not in the kitchen. Have we bred a generation of spoon-fed, cotton-wool-wrapped children?
I talked to some of my peers to figure out what prompts a tipping of the scales. “I noticed a change in my weight because I had the freedom to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted,” Rosie Sobieraj, a recent Sheffield Hallam graduate, admits. “I ate all the wrong kind of food,” she says.
“When I lived at home I’d eat healthily because that’s what my parents cooked me,” agrees University of Leeds graduate Carrie Rose. “But in my first year I’d eat pasties and crisps for lunch, have a fatty dinner – pizza, maybe – and then a takeaway after my night out. The weight simply piled on.”
Drinking can often have an insidious effect, too. “You don’t notice the alcohol weight – you blame it on the food,” Sophie Chadwick, a recent dance graduate, says. “You gain calories from the alcohol, of course, but it’s the night-out food that is the shocker. The alcohol enables you; you don’t go out and drink and then not eat – you do both!” Miki Simpson, now 22 and working in the City, agrees. “I wasn’t sure about drinking the amount of alcohol that I did over the first two weeks of university,” she explains. “I ended up downing tons of alcopop vodka concoctions and eating lots of awful midnight snacks.”
Is it these snacks that play a prominent role? “Definitely,” Chadwick says. “When I’m drunk on a night out, it gets to a point where I’m starving and then I’ll order the biggest meal possible, one I wouldn’t have wanted if I had been sober, or eaten before I went out. I think a lot of it comes from that, and it’s hard to escape it in first year.”
Not everyone indulges in roundthe-clock boozing – I didn’t, and yet I found myself not quite squeezing into my old school skirt that first Christmas. “I think it was a lack of education,” Rose says, confirming my fears. “But I was lazy too in my first year. I’d rather cook up a quick bowl of chips, cheese and beans and then head out drinking. I rarely exercised, too, and that didn’t help.”
Chadwick agrees. “I couldn’t cook a thing before I went to university – my mum had to write me a manual, even down to how to switch on an oven. I was shocking!”
In defence of my peers, it is easy to be unnerved by cooking, if you’re not used to doing it for yourself. “I didn’t cook meat for about a month when I first moved out, terrified I’d poison myself,” Chadwick admits. “I only started experimenting because the girl next door could cook and she helped me.”
But what can parents do if they are worried about their children’s eating habits at university? One option is to provide the food themselves. Chris Mandle, now 25, studied English language at Newcastle University and received food packages from his parents in the post. “It wasn’t purely financial,” he says. “It was also so I got the basics of how to eat. They’d send big bags of pasta and rice, maybe a loaf of bread, tins of tomatoes and pulses, and fresh veg. It was their way of saying ‘this is what you can build a meal with’. I got a bit of flak from my mates, but I’d do the same for my kids.”
Remembering the cries of “Let’s go to Dixie chicken!” after nights out at my alma mater, I ask an expert about what can be done to reduce fresher weight gain without looking like a spoilsport. “The key to success lies in having a balanced diet. Universities can help by offering freshly prepared foods on site, too,” nutritionist Dr Adam Carey explains.
It isn’t just good for your body, but your brain too. “Research identifies that individuals who frequently snack on refined carbohydrates like biscuits and crisps have poorer concentration,” Carey adds.
Is it just my generation, though? Absolutely not. “We recognise that most students drink alcohol and we all know that in excess, this is not healthy, but the consumption has not really changed over the last 30 years.” Phew.
Some advice from the mouths of babes? Don’t be afraid of buying meat in the supermarket, and invest in a small wok. “The wok was the game changer for me,” Sobieraj says, when I press for a solution. “When I discovered stir fries and rice noodles, everything fell into place.”
Carbs and more carbs: pasta may be easy to cook but don’t over do it, and limit your intake of biscuits and crisps