A newly released study suggests university students are eating worse, are less active and are drinking more alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic than they were before.
Gordon Zello, a professor in nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan, was one of the head researchers on the study, which has been published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.
"There's certainly been some research out there that suggested that the COVID epidemic made university students and vulnerable groups have poor diets and less physical activity," Zello said. "But the problem with a lot of these studies is they didn't have a pre-COVID analysis."
The study took a survey about the student's pre-pandemic lifestyles in the spring of 2020, so the University of Saskatchewan researchers had a frame of reference for the new data.
Zello said the findings show university students, especially those most vulnerable — people who live independently, or with roommates or partners but are responsible for buying and preparing their own food — need to be targeted for interventions.
The four-month study surveyed 125 graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina who were considered vulnerable.
Worsening habits weren't surprising, Zello says, but the study found students ate less of the foods typically eaten in the spring — like fruits and vegetables.
Similarly, "with physical activity going into summer months, you would expect people to be more physically active. So to actually see things get worse during COVID was a bit surprising," Zello said.
The study found students weren't getting the vitamins and nutrients they needed, that hours of sedentary behaviour rose dramatically from three hours to 11 per day, that students ate less meat, and that their alcohol consumption significantly increased.
"Remember, these students were not those which had a big [social] bubble, if you like," he said. "So they're going to be more isolated and [that] probably led to more things like screen time or sedentary behaviours."
Keely Shaw, a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan, was another of the study's authors. She knew university students don't always have the best habits during normal times, let alone during a pandemic.
"If it's their first or second year being away from home, they might not have the skills to cook food. They might rely a lot on eating out or ready-made meals," Shaw said.
Combined with recommendations to avoid going out to restaurants, "there's a lot more strain put on the individual," she said.
But Shaw says the increased alcohol consumption wasn't expected, because pre-pandemic, people typically drank more with their peers than when alone.
Shaw was also surprised by the decrease in meat consumption.
"I feel like in Western culture, we kind of structure our meals around the meat. So I would almost have expected that to be a little bit more stable across the board, but our research showed otherwise," Shaw said.
Zello said he hopes the impacts from this study are remembered for the next waves of the pandemic and any future pandemics. He said there's been more focus on family units instead of isolated people and fostering positive habits.
"These lifestyle changes are hard to change again," Zello said. "So the longer this epidemic goes on and the longer people are not physically active, the longer they're eating poor diets. To change them back to what they were before becomes also difficult."
Shaw hopes university students read the research and consider their own habits, she said.
She suggests walking around the block, eating as healthy a diet as a person's budget allows, and carrying any positive habits forward into a post-pandemic world.
"Hopefully from there they can really understand the importance of maintaining a super well-balanced, rich in fruits and vegetables diet, and trying to really ensure that they're limiting their sedentary behaviour," Shaw said.
Shaw and Zello conducted the research with co-authors Leandy Bertrand, Phil Chilibeck, research assistant Jongbum Ko and undergraduate summer student Dalton Deprez.