Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Food for Thought
Law school is nutritionally disruptive. This was common knowledge at my law school, where my classmates and I joked about having gained 15 pounds while we were getting our JDs. We all felt we understood what had happened. For three years we had chained ourselves to our desks, abandoned physical exercise in favor of mental anguish calisthenics, and frequently resorted to fast food or prepared meals to minimize time spent in the kitchen. Some of us still managed to blow off some steam in a bar from time to time, but otherwise, culinary matters took a back seat to our studies. The resulting excesses -- weight gain, or manic caffeine intake, or bingey sugar highs -- were seen almost as a badge of honor, like pulling an all-nighter to get a memo in on time.
As far as I can tell, things are still the same today. Law students beset with too many tasks and not enough time have to find ways to make time or to soothe stress, and meals and snacks offer convenient opportunities to do so. Not every student makes unhealthy choices, and many of those who do face few ill effects beyond the need for a new wardrobe. But now, watching from the other side of the lectern, I can better see that food issues can have noticeable or even serious impacts on some students' academic performance:
- While gaining weight often seems to be no more than a nuisance, to some students, such changes can be associated with actual effects on mental state, such as decreased stamina or alertness, or negative moods. The weight gain may not be the cause of these changes -- it can sometimes be an effect of lifestyle changes in diet and exercise that can be the source of changes to mental state.
- Sometimes dietary changes specific to certain substances -- such as increased intake of alcohol, caffeine, or sugar -- can have particular effects on behavior or mental state, such poor judgment, fatigue, agitation, or distractibility, that can have negative impacts on critical reading, time management, attention to detail, and other keys to success in law school.
- Sometimes the problem is not so much too much food or the wrong kind of food, but too little food. Students facing shaky finances may find their food budget the easiest thing to cut. Other students may not eat enough food -- or at least not enough healthy food -- because of loss of appetite due to stress. Food deprivation can lead to distraction, disrupt blood sugar levels, and affect memory and attentiveness.
When we work with students, especially one on one, we have opportunities to observe whether some of them are perhaps inordinately affected by dietary issues. In some cases, we may need to enlist the help of others. For example, if financial insecurity is manifesting in a poor diet, a referral to Financial Aid may be appropriate. Encouraging students to seek help from physicians or mental health professionals may also be wise when food issues are leading to serious primary health concerns. But sometimes our students just need a little grounding, a little reminder that they have to take care of themselves while they take care of their studies. A few helpful tips can include:
- Eating smaller meals (or healthy snacks) over the course of the day, rather than pigging out on one big meal at the end of the day after classes are over, can help moderate calorie intake and lessen variations in blood sugar levels.
- Planning ahead for the day or even the week can help to insure steady, healthy eating while minimizing time spent in preparing or obtaining food.
- Buying and carrying around healthier snack alternatives can help forestall binge purchases of high-sugar and high-fat snacks during breaks between classes or study periods.
- Scheduling meals with classmates (for study purposes) or friends and family (to stay connected) can be a good way to make efficient use of the time that you have to spend eating anyway, so that good food doesn't seem so much like an expendable indulgence.
When they are stressed out about studies and papers and exams, taking care of themselves may be the last thing on students' minds. Helping them see how beneficial and easy healthy eating can be may help some students' academic performance.