Change in eating habits creates concern

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MORGANTOWN — The COVID-19 pandemic has had a widespread impact on mental health, but it has also resulted in dietary and lifestyle changes for some West Virginia University students.

Lyndsey Miller, a junior studying wildlife and fisheries resources at WVU, said while COVID-19 might not have been a direct cause of her dietary changes, it acted as a catalyst for her to make them.

Months prior to the pandemic, Miller made the decision to cut meat out of her diet. Miller said the pandemic gave her the opportunity to further explore meal alternatives and time to work on herself.

“I eat less now, but healthier,” she said. “I eat way more whole, nutritious meals now that I’m used to cooking everything myself. I’ve also lost a lot of weight because of it.”

Jakob Janoski, a junior journalism major at WVU, said while the pandemic did not lead to significant changes in the nutritional value of the food he eats, Janoski said he eats the same amount – if not more – now as he did before the pandemic.

This is a negative thing, according to Janoski, because he hasn’t been able to be as active as he was prior to the pandemic.

“I ate a lot while I was active but didn’t lower my calorie count when I became less active because of the pandemic,” he said.

Janoski said this resulted in a weight gain of 10 pounds. He said if not for the pandemic, he believes he would be in “fantastic shape.”

“With the gym being closed at school, that has affected my health both mentally and physically,” he said.

Janoski started a petition for WVU to open its Student Recreation Center as a result. The petition had received 2,996 of 5,000 needed signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Sina King, dietician for WVU dining services, said WVU is used to seeing students eat mainly comfort foods at their dining halls. These foods include French fries/tater tots, hamburgers/cheeseburgers, pizza, pastas and chicken tenders.

According to King, WVU has not seen a significant increase in students eating comfort foods since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

King said when it comes to college-age students, nutritional status and lifestyle habits are crucial when it comes to the severity of COVID-19.

“Things that can inhibit the immune system are going to be things like poor sleep, mental health concerns, alcohol consumption and inadequacy of diet. Maintaining hydration status is something to think about,” King said.

She said in her experience, it’s common for college students to skip meals, even prior to COVID-19. Skipping meals can impact nutritional adequacy in an individual and exacerbate vitamin D deficiency, which is prevalent in the winter as people stay inside more often.

King said mental health and nutrition rely on each other to remain stable. Additional stress, such as that brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, can result in individuals eating much less or much more than they usually do.

However, changes in dietary habits and nutrition can also lead to mental health problems.  

“It’s kind of like ‘the chicken or the egg’ scenario – what’s coming first?” King said.

King said weight fluctuations in students as a result of changed dietary habits can further mental health concerns.

For students who find it difficult to make time to eat complete meals during the day or are avoiding sitting down to eat at WVU dining halls or facilities, King said WVU offers quick grab-and-go dining options, many of which feature healthy foods like salads, soups, sushi and fruits that students can easily access.

Grab-and-go locations include Lyon’s Den (in Towers), Park Place (in the connector between the two towers at University Park’s Oakland Hall) and Jazzmans (in the Mountainlair).

“We had less grab-and-go options for some of those dining facilities, so now we’ve really incorporated those because we’re considering students’ feelings toward, ‘I don’t want to eat, I’d rather eat in a more isolated environment because I’m worried about people without any masks on sitting close to me,’ and just sanitation. We understand those concerns, although we do want to make sure we have the highest guidelines possible with sanitation and … glass barriers between tables,” King said.

King said students considering dietary supplementation – taking vitamins and minerals that aren’t being received through whole foods in either pill or powdered form – should set up a consultation with her to make sure supplements are right for them, as supplementation relies on an individualized approach and may not be beneficial for everyone.

“It really depends on your daily activity, if you’re outside or not, your diet and even ethnicity can play a role in things like that … we don’t want students to waste money when they’re potentially receiving [vitamins and minerals] from food and they don’t necessarily need it, and so it’s not really useful for them,” King said.

Students interested in discussing dietary or nutritional concerns can contact Sina King by visiting https://diningservices.wvu.edu/nutrition/counseling.

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