University students eating worse, exercising less, drinking more in COVID-19 'isolation': study

WATCH: A new study from the University of Saskatchewan says students' diets and activity levels have gone down while drinking is on the rise since the start of the pandemic.

University students aren’t known for their amazing diets and abstinence from alcohol. A new study from the University of Saskatchewan, however, shows in COVID-19 “isolation”, students’ diets and activity levels have gotten worse, while drinking is on the rise.

The study looked at 125 undergraduate and graduate students from the universities of Saskatchewan and Regina who live in “isolation” — people who don’t rely on school meal plans or others, like parents, to feed them.

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The study shows post-secondary students in the province are eating nearly half the vegetables they were pre-pandemic — 45-per cent fewer.

Similarly, it finds they’re eating significantly less meat and dairy.

For some students, finding time to eat between Zoom sessions is one of the reasons.

“I have back to back classes,” said fifth-year student Autumn Larose-Smith.

“If I wanted to get something for lunch or for breakfast it has to be something really quick, usually it’s a peanut butter toast every day and then instant noodles for lunch.”

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Larose-Smith and her partner are both students. At one point she had to self-isolate in their apartment, forcing the couple to plan meals with convenience in mind.

“We planned meals that were really, really quick to make. Frozen pizza, because she’s working, she’s in school, she doesn’t have time to be making an extravagant meal and then bring it to my door,” Larose-Smith explained.

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The study also found students’ activity has dropped; 16 per cent were getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week before the pandemic, but now only 9.6 per cent are.

Larose-Smith said she isn’t surprised to hear that.

“I’m just sitting at the computer going from meeting to meeting, jumping through Zoom and Google hangouts so I’m really not moving unless I’m going to get something to eat or take my dog out during the day,” she said.

The study’s findings have some of its authors concerned about new habits forming and being hard to break.

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“Once behaviours change, it’s often not easy to go back to previous behavior,” said Gordon Zello, professor of nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan.

“If you stop being active or going to the gym … once you have that opportunity again it takes some kind of motivation to change. Similarly with diet, to get used to a kind of diet it’s often hard to go back to a previous diet that you had.”

He said the number of calories students consume hasn’t gone up, but the quality of their food is far worse.

Zello points to nutrient deficiencies; the study estimates pre-pandemic about 5 per cent of those surveyed would not be getting enough Vitamin C, it predicts 25 per cent now would be lacking.

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Zello said he hopes the research shows universities and other post-secondary schools how they can help support students.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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