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How I Write and Learn

Eating to Learn: Healthy Habits for Academic Success

By Emma, a Peer Tutor

I have found that in times of high stress and feeling overwhelmed with the amount of assignments or tasks that need to be done, the first activities that start to slip are the ones that are most needed and life-sustaining. As a Nutrition major, I have often been struck with the tragic irony of neglecting my own eating to study for my Nutrition (and other) classes, or not putting enough on my plate (food-wise) because there is too much on my plate (school-wise). Nutrition puns aside, I have seen and struggled with the importance of eating for effective learning this semester. Without the essential fuel and nutrients that food provides, I cannot expect to learn well. 

Before I begin my discussion of what has worked for me, I want to acknowledge that food is a tricky subject for lots of people. Having a healthy relationship with food, especially with the pressures of diet culture, is HARD. Furthermore, it can be difficult to obtain healthy foods and food insecurity is a major issue on college campuses across the country, including ours. I’ve included a list of resources at the end of this post that I hope could be helpful to anyone who is having a hard time with finding or eating food. I want to recognize that I am writing out of a place of privilege as someone whose financial circumstances allow for some discretionary food spending, and as someone who (for the most part) has a healthy relationship with eating and the often-related issue of body image. 

This year, I am living off campus, which has proven to be a challenge in terms of finding sufficient time to buy, cook, and eat food. Healthy habits are often rather inconvenient for me. When assignments are building up, I do not want to devote valuable time to prepare and eat food. That being said, eating well is essential to my learning and thriving. I can always tell when I am not nourishing myself adequately because I don’t feel my best – from physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, feeling lightheaded/shaky, to mental symptoms like difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and not being able to think about anything but food. These pesky side effects interfere with my ability to study and remind me that I am a mere human who must take time to feed herself! Thus, I have decided to devote a blog to discuss some of the ways that I try to eat to learn. I am by no means successful in this endeavor 100% (or even 75%) of the time, but these are my intentions. 

1. I pack my lunch at night and incorporate easy-to-pack, easy-to-eat foods.

The mornings are not a realistic time for me to pack my lunch, but in the evenings, I have sufficient time to make sure that I have everything I need. I emphasize foods that will keep well and aren’t very time-consuming to pack. 

Here are some of my favorite easy foods to pack as sides or snacks in my lunch:

  • Carrots, cucumbers, and/or tomatoes with hummus 
  • Nuts (my favorites are walnuts and pecans) 
  • Sandwiches! I like turkey, or peanut butter and banana
  • Fruit that I don’t have to slice or prepare, like apples, oranges, or kiwis 
  • Treats! Cookies, muffins, etc. made by myself or a roommate – I’m fortunate enough to live with many talented bakers! 

In any given meal, I try to incorporate the major macronutrients – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These macronutrients are essential because they provide energy, structural support, and regulation within cells. Some examples of sources of carbohydrates include fruit, vegetables, grains, and cereals. Normally when we talk about “carbs”, we mean foods like pizza, pasta, bread, etc. These are great sources of carbohydrates, but this macronutrient is found in many other foods too! Fat is often labeled as a “bad” food to avoid, but our bodies actually need dietary sources of fat – especially polyunsaturated fats found in delicious foods like avocados, olive oil, fish, and nuts. Finally, some of my favorite ways to incorporate protein in my diet are beans, nuts, yogurt, chicken, and fish. 

2. I remind myself that I should always have time for a meal. 

Sometimes, I find myself developing a type of “martyr complex” in which I pride myself on being busier than anyone else. It feels good, in a sense, to not have time to eat because it feels like I am working harder and better than my friends and peers. This is false and harmful. I have to remind myself mental health and physical health are not only as important, but arguably more important than getting to the bottom of my to-do list, or throwing myself into as many activities as possible. It’s not worth it to achieve maximum productivity and do as much as possible at the expense of my health. In fact, the irony is that consistently choosing studying or anything else over eating, sleeping, and exercising always proves itself to be unsustainable. I get burnt out, tired, and sick which is counter-productive to my goal of being successful! 

3. On Sundays, I create a grocery list and a loose, flexible plan for what I will cook and eat during the week. 

If I walk into the grocery store with no list, I wander aimlessly through the aisles grabbing things that seem potentially feasible to cook. This never ends well. Making a list ensures that I am spending my time and money effectively. I also find it helpful to think about when I will cook. For example, it’s not realistic for me to cook dinner on an evening where I am working from 5-8pm, but Sunday afternoons after church, or Saturday evenings after hanging out with friends are a great time for me to meal-prep a few easy things to enjoy throughout the week. I try to cook most of my meals at home, but I’ve also found that it’s important for me to give myself grace and acknowledge that a couple meals per week will probably be purchased elsewhere. 

The grocery list needed to make black bean burgers, chicken fajitas, chicken sausage and roasted vegetables, chicken fried cauliflower rice, and muffins.
This image is a screenshot of a grocery list I created, including the meals that I planned to prepare with the groceries. I am not a very experienced cook, so I always include links to the online recipe for myself to refer to later!

One example of a favorite meal of mine is beans and rice – a classic. It is filling and makes a lot so that I can eat leftovers for the next couple of days. Beans are an excellent source of protein and they are relatively inexpensive! The cilantro and lime add some flavor and color and remind me of the cilantro-lime rice at Chipotle (so good).  I’ve attached a recipe that I use.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that I have learned how important it is to fuel my body the hard way. I’ve struggled with some health issues during the past few years that while minor, have been inconvenient and uncomfortable, namely stomach pain that has interfered with my ability to study and learn most effectively. In fact, I have very recently begun to seek treatment for chronic stomach pain that up until now I could not distinguish from the typical stomach discomfort I have had in the past from not eating enough. I continue to have a hard time putting health first, but I’m growing more confident in my ability to nourish myself (#adulting). This newfound priority is always reinforced when I manage to prepare a delicious meal that makes me feel full and well. 

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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