You go out to have lunch with your friends. Checking the menu, you spot a "Student Meal" which, fortunately for you, is the cheapest item. It's always a nice touch when you see such measures taken by restaurants because it feels like they are being considerate towards your budget. You smile and order the beef cheese burger with fries and a Coke. Life is good.
Except, it isn't. You have not had a properly nutritious meal in a long time. You don't think you have the time, or the resources, to truly worry about having balanced meals. You're young. You think it'll be ok. But will it really?
"Student meals" in Bangladesh is synonymous with unhealthy food. In the fast-paced nature of student life, proper nutrition can't always keep up. We asked several students what their daily meals looked like, and this is what they said:
"Most of the time I have my meals outside campus because I don't like the food in our cafeteria. I mainly have burgers, pizzas, or rice meals. However, if I am short on time and have to pick from the canteen, I prefer desserts like kheer to suppress my hunger. When I don't feel like having dessert, then dry foods like sandwich or patties work fine for me," says Dawood Yaseen, fourth-year CSE student at North South University.
"On most working days, lunch is the most neglected and inconsistent meal for me. I often find myself skipping lunch altogether. But usually, I snack on whatever is cheap and accessible, mostly, fast food like fries and shingara to suppress my hunger. I rarely go to the university cafeteria as I don't prefer the food," says Abdullah, a senior at BRAC University.
The most important reasons for this situation are the tight budget which most students have to live on, and the sheer lack of healthy options. Considering the regular university cafeteria meals available, an alarming pattern becomes apparent: the food mostly consists of carbohydrates, very often of the fried variety, fats, and some proteins, which are also not prepared in a hygienic environment. If a vegetable is ever spotted, there is almost always a generous batter of the ever-fried carbohydrates to lather it in. Trying to find a moderately filling healthy meal becomes an uphill battle from the get-go.
"On some days to kill hunger I choose to have jhalmuri. There indeed is variety of food at canteens throughout the campus but not everything is reasonably priced. The closest canteen to my department has Chinese vegetable on their menu but is not healthy. They sell fruit juice but some of them cost 80 taka a cup," comments Anika Anjum, second-year student of Sociology at University of Dhaka.
When asked about what's advertised as "student meals" in restaurants, and whether they are balanced meals, this is what they had to say:
"Our meals aren't exactly very balanced. Majority of the food products available for us students at restaurants are carbohydrates and fatty foods," says Mashiyat Binte Sharfuddin, final-year Marketing student at Jahangirnagar University.
"Student meals usually come cheap and easy. That usually means set fast food meals. In fact, many corners are cut in terms of balance and quality when it comes to student meals in order to make the pricing more competitive," states Abdullah.
What is subjecting our bodies to this kind of unbalanced consumption doing to us? Shamsun Naher Nahid, Principal Nutritionist and Head of Department, BIRDEM, reveals the very real consequences that prolonged continuation of such a diet between the ages of 18 to 25 has on us at present, and in the future.
"After turning 18, 'hall life' becomes very common for the youth of our country. In halls, the food they have is not of very high quality. For breakfast, they usually provide khichuri or porota. Those living in halls who come from outside Dhaka usually consume these high-calorie foods and it slowly leads to obesity. Some students, especially those who are from Dhaka, tend to avoid these foods but a lot of them end up going to classes without any breakfast at all, leading to low glucose levels in their brain, and lack of concentration."
"The quality of food at halls for lunch and dinner is equally low. Sometimes to avoid these foods students go to eat street food, or dine at hotels. However, unhealthy foods at hotels end up causing acidity and ulceration."
"Students with unhealthy diets experience low energy levels. They cannot muster up the energy required to focus on their studies after classes. This affects their academic lives as well."
"Foods available at halls provide very little vitamins and minerals, leading to a decrease in immunity. Furthermore, calorie-dense food leads to obesity, which is why we are also seeing early on-sets of diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart conditions these days, especially in the student population," she states.
It's blatantly obvious that we should not continue on this unhealthy path if we wish to live longer, more prosperous lives. There are certain steps that must be taken to enable students to lead healthier lifestyles.
Universities should have subsidised, healthy meals that include fresh juices, fruits, salads, and vegetables in their options, and make these foods just as cheap, if not cheaper, as the unhealthy options.
Restaurants should also have nutrition/health information on their food. This is a common practice in many countries. The only reason we have not been able to establish such practices in our country yet are because of our attitudes, and lack of concern regarding our health in general. However, attitudes need to change if we are to become healthier as a people. Many people in our country still cannot fathom the concept of a salad being a standalone meal, and as Bangladesh moves towards becoming a more developed nation such ideals will have to evolve.
One particular attitude we have regarding food options is that only the affluent have the luxury of being health conscious. Having a salad for lunch is sometimes even perceived as being "pretentious" or "snooty". We have to stop branding "health consciousness" as a mark of wealth. It may be difficult for many people to make healthy choices, but with the bountiful land that we have, our attitude should be "how can we make healthier options more affordable for the masses, and how can we make them think more about their health?"
Making people more concerned about health needs to be emphasised because in conversations with the students regarding the culture of food, a concept of particular interest arose.
"The food culture in our country is usually not the best in terms of balanced diets. Sources of fibre and vitamins like salads and fruits are extraordinary and not often consumed on a regular basis," says Abdullah.
"No one wants to spend money on a vegetable platter outside home. Fast food is cheap and tasty," mentions Sajid Mohammad Fahad, a senior at North South University.
This brings us to the final piece of this sad puzzle. At the end of the day, even if the authorities take all possible measures, choosing to lead a healthier lifestyle is upon our own shoulders, and we need to make sure that if affordable, we personally choose the healthier options more often than we do the unhealthy one. Unhealthy food that tastes good should be an occasional indulgence, not a regular habit. We need to work in unison towards a solution that makes this choice affordable for the youth.
Rabita Saleh is a perfectionist/workaholic. Email feedback to this generally boring person at firstname.lastname@example.org