7 Ways Universities Can Offer Healthier Food Options to International Students

Pat Polise, RN.M.Ed., Nurse Consultant for LewerMark | April 5, 2018

The start of each school term is a busy time for us at LewerMark when we conduct orientation seminars, train advisors about insurance coverage, and educate students on how to use their insurance. And, like clockwork, the first insurance claims start coming in our office, often with students walking into healthcare facilities having 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 normal diets to an American culture diets.

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 an enlarged liver, liver abscess, 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
Mac and cheese                   Fish and chips
Philly cheese steak              Pasta
Cheeseburger                       Cheese quesadilla
Grilled cheese                       Soda

Desserts like brownies, cookies, and cake

Typical Asian diets revolve around rice, some meat or fish, seaweed, vegetables, broth type soup. Desserts like nuts. These choices don’t seem to match what is on the dorm menus.

 

Almost Every Student’s Eating Habits Change at College

A study in the Journal of International Students – The 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 Face Unique Dietary Challenges

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 (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 in order to provide effective nutrition education to an increasingly diverse population.

 

Practical Solutions for Universities to Offer Healthier Foods

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

 

  1. Colleges and universities can do a better job of teaching international students about healthy food choices available in the United States.
  1. The university can work with the food service companies to offer a wider variety of foods and more dietary options for international students.
  1. The university can 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.
  1. Access to kitchens – international students would benefit from having a kitchen available in their dormitories.
  1. Increase awareness of international and ethnic food stores in addition to American grocery stores. It is important to let students of all backgrounds, especially international, know the array of available food options and be introduced to their new food environment.
  1. Shuttle services could be provided that incorporate routes to diverse places, including traditional stores and restaurants.
  1. The university could partner with area businesses in order to provide its 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.