Saturday, 20 February 2010

Being a Student and On A Diet

Being a student makes dieting and healthy eating quite the challenge, or so I’ve found. In an ideal world I would be able to fill my plate with protein (which for me means meat, sorry veggies) and vegetables and pretty much cut out carbohydrates from my diet (except that found in the veggies). Being a student (and therefore poor) makes this almost impossible.

The advantage of starchy carbohydrates like pasta, rice and potatoes is that they’re cheap. You can buy a bag of cheap pasta for about forty pence, and it lasts you about a week. For a lot of students this means they have more money for spending on booze; for me it means I can afford to pay rent and bills. In addition to being cheap and cheerful, these carbs are also extremely filling. You can eat a bowl of pasta and you feel full. The equivalent amount of carrot sticks, for example, is nowhere near as satisfying, and has me reaching for something more substantial in less than two hours.

Carbohydrates are also versatile; on their own these foods are pretty much universally boring and bland, but they’re easy to dress up. Got some pasta? Whip up a simple sauce and dinners done. Got bread? Put something interesting between two slices of it and hey presto, a meal. Carbohydrates are a base for something more interesting, and it is all too easy to create meals that have carbs at their core instead of at the side.

The final thing that makes carbs so irresistible and useful to me as a student is how easy they are to prepare. In most cases you can boil your chosen carbohydrate in a pan of water for ten or twenty minutes and dinner’s ready. After a day of lectures and labs, with an evening of coursework ahead of me, the last thing I want to be doing is cooking a gourmet dinner that takes three hours to prepare and cook. I want something quick, simple and satisfying, and all too often a carb heavy meal is what gets made.

The fact carbs are cheap isn’t necessarily reason enough to make them my main source of nutrition. If protein and veg were as cheap as pasta and rice, then I would eat them instead of the carbs. But the simple fact is they’re not. Meat can get quite expensive, particularly if it’s chicken. Fresh veg can also be quite pricey, depending on what you’re after in terms of quality or variety. I try to buy frozen meat and veg where possible, but this saving in price often means compromising on quality. And lower quality meat tends to be very fatty, which completely defeats the point.

All of this means that it has been extremely challenging for me to balance my diet with my financial situation. So far I’ve managed by getting a lot of my protein from eggs. I tend to have an omelette or scrambled eggs for lunch and something with meat and vegetables for dinner. If I’m having a really good day the only carbohydrate I eat is my porridge at breakfast time. If I’m having a bad day or it’s the end of the month, every meal has a large dollop of carbohydrate. It’s tricky, but I’m starting to get an eye for deals on meat, particularly bulk buying and freezing things. It’s taking time, but this is a lifestyle change I intend to keep, so it is well worth me getting used to it.

The other major challenge about balancing the student lifestyle with this diet is alcohol. It’s not that I feel pressured into getting plastered every night. I have plenty of friends who are either teetotal or only occasional drinkers, so I would have company in abstaining. The issue here is primarily the cost of soft drink in the Student’s Union bar, where I do most of my drinking. In the SU bar a pint of coke costs nearly as much as a pint of cider, which is my usual tipple, so there is little incentive to stay sober there. There’s more incentive in other bars and pubs, but there I’d rather drink alcohol anyway, because of the variety these places send to stock.

And delicious though it is, alcohol has so many calories. Alcohol is produced by fermenting sugar, so it’s no surprise its calorie heavy. A pint of cider ahs about as many calories as a whole meal under my diet, which means a night of drinking can very easily put me over the calorie limit recommended by the government, let alone my personal calorie budget.

It is a challenge, undertaking a healthy lifestyle while living as a student, but I believe I’m approaching a compromise. And for now, compromise will have to be enough. When I’ve graduated and am earning, then I’ll review this diet to see if I can afford to amend it. Until then, I’ll just try to stay away from carbs as much as possible.


  1. Do you like tofu? That's got a lot of protein and I believe it's less expensive than meat. There are also soy-based crunchy snacks (available in bulk stores) that are like chips/crisps but they have more protein.

  2. Honestly, I've never tried tofu. Not 100% sure about it though. Also soy based foods I don't think I'd like. Tried soy milk and it nearly made me sick. Will check out the price of tofu though