7 Ways Universities Can Offer Familiar Food Choices to International Students

Pat Polise, RN.M.Ed., Nurse Consultant for LewerMark | 8-30-2018

At LewerMark, because we handle insurance for international students, the beginning of the school year is the time we start to see an increase in insurance claims. Some of these first claims will often involve students suffering from gastrointestinal complaints.

One of the biggest adjustments international students have to make when studying in the U.S. is dietary changes. Many students will have gastrointestinal issues after switching from their country’s food to an American culture diet, which is typically higher in fat and sugar. While colleges cannot determine what an individual student can or cannot eat, there are ways to expand the choices for international students so the change doesn’t have to be so abrupt.


Dietary Changes Can Lead to Serious Health Issues

For LewerMark, one of the worst cases we have seen occurred when a student from Southeast Asia was diagnosed with acute gastritis after her first week of school. She was initially treated for constipation, but after time, she developed liver problems, sepsis, and pancreatitis. The student was enrolled for one year and four months before returning to her home country. While this is an extreme example, almost all international students will experience some degree of dietary changes.

Because the western culture diet is higher in fat and sugar, these changes can be responsible for health consequences such as weight gain (most common), increased blood glucose levels, increased cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and even mental health problems.  


The Typical College Meal Plan

I looked at a few sample menus at different universities, some of the menu choices are:


Fajita bar                            Deli Bar                    Fish and chips                  Grilled cheese

Philly Cheesesteak          Cheeseburger         Cheese quesadilla          Mac and cheese

Pasta                                   Desserts like brownies, cookies, & cake        Soda


Typical Asian diets revolve around rice, chicken or fish, a wide variety of vegetables, broth-based soups and nuts. These choices don’t usually match what is on the dorm menus of most US colleges.  


Almost Every Student’s Eating Habits Change at College

A study in the Journal of International StudentsThe Factors That Influence Dietary Habits Among International Students in the United States – showed that there are several changes to dietary habits such as: skipping breakfast, eating fewer fruits and vegetables, and convenience food consumption. It is important to note these are universal among college-age students and are not specific to international or domestic students. However…  


International Students’ Diets Change Even More

International students face several unique dietary challenges such as: the limitation in the food availability and access; and consequences of dietary habit changes specifically related to international students’ dietary habits as a result of adapting to the U.S. culture. There are several factors that may contribute to these changes, including campus environment, individual preferences, and food environment (the place where food is obtained, food prices, community characteristics, restaurant proximity, and store availability). Knowledge of food practices and preferences of international students from various ethnic groups is necessary to provide effective nutrition education to an increasingly diverse population.  


7 Solutions for Universities to Offer Familiar Foods

This same study offered these suggestions for universities to facilitate a healthy food environment that is culturally appropriate for international students:

  1. Teach international students about healthy food choices available in the United States.
  2. Work with the food service companies to offer a wider variety of dietary options for international students.
  3. Bring together local farmers’ markets with food service companies on campus. Ethnic food stores could be invited to participate as well; it may be beneficial for all parties to implement a system in which each store corresponds with a day of the week. This fixed schedule would help students remember when they could obtain certain traditional foods, and it would also encourage the merchants to devote one day per week to the success of this endeavor.
  4. Create more access to kitchens. International students would benefit from having a kitchen available in their dormitories.
  5. Increase awareness of international and ethnic food stores in addition to American grocery stores. It is important to let students of all backgrounds, especially internationals, know the array of available food options and be introduced to their new food environment.
  6. Provide shuttle services that incorporate routes to diverse places, including international stores and restaurants.
  7. Partner with area businesses to provide students with more flexible meal plan spending options in which students could use the university food allotment at local grocers and restaurants.

Implementing new dietary programs and practices would be beneficial for both the university and the student body. The university will attract more international students and thus increase its diversity. Plus, both the American students and the international students could benefit from these changes. In the meantime, we can encourage students to seek out new restaurants, grocery stores, and try to make the healthiest decisions they can when it comes to what they eat. In the meantime, we can encourage students to seek out new restaurants, grocery stores, and try to make the healthiest decisions they can when it comes to what they eat.