Notes on the university diet
If you were there at that moment, the first thing you’d notice is the guy in the red lumberjack jacket. He’s half-running up the street holding a small oily box in one hand and a plastic fork in the frozen grip of the other. Even in the freezing rain, he can’t help shovelling a mouthful or four of this delicious boxed snack on his way to whatever warm destination he’s so eager to reach.
The reason you notice him is not because he’s doing something that everyone else on this drunken stretch of asphalt is not—it’s because his jacket matches the bright red sign hanging above his head.
In a little while, people will cluster under this sign in Ottawa’s Byward Market, lined up to get inside this eatery full of university students and a few others too. Some girls will be freezing in tiny skirts and low cut shirts, while others will be warmly wrapped in the kind of comfy, high school logo-ed hoodie that hasn’t been worn outside the house since they graduated. All of them will be waiting for poutine: a pile of fried potatoes and gooey cheese slathered with enough gravy to drown a small animal. Welcome to a Canadian tradition. This is Smoke’s Poutine just before 2:00a.m.
As the night goes on and the bars close, the tiny establishment becomes more and more crowded. The line-up is out the door, as the cool smell of spilt beer wafts in from the sidewalks and the warm smell of gravy drifts out of the shop. Tonight should be a slow night. The weather is terrible and the clocks turn back an hour at 2:00A.M., meaning most bars will cut into Smoke’s sales by staying open an extra hour. Nevertheless, the engine that is Smoke’s—which does about 40 per cent of its business on weekends between 1:00 and 4:00a.m.—will serve up more than 110 steaming boxes in the next hour. The overwhelming majority of these clients will be university students.
It’s a familiar routine for most students. After a night drinking multiple beers or mixed drinks at one of the bars or clubs, they will be faced with a decision: go straight home to “sleep it off” or grab a bite to take the edge off the impending hangover.
Smoke’s is only one of many spots in the city that have become a part of this ritual—one that offers a tiny glimpse into the university lifestyle. It’s a ritual I’m more than familiar with after four years at school in Ottawa. The feelings of guilt that follow a trip to Smoke’s are usually complemented by feelings of physical pain, as my body tries desperately to pump that artery clogging sludge through its system. Despite this far too common routine, I’m still at a reasonable weight (185 pounds, 6 feet tall) and many other 21-year-old university students can say the same. In fact, Statistics Canada’s report from 2011 indicates the 18-34 year old segment of the population is about 10 per cent less obese than the older segments. Though all of these age segments have grown fatter in recent years, the younger population has always remained leaner than their elders.
But my, perhaps, ill-conceived anxiety is rooted in one unfortunate fact: I won’t always be young. At some point I will have to confront the metabolic certainty that I will no longer be able to able to ingest pounds of late night grease and beer and stay at a decent weight – a few weekly gym visits just won’t cut it anymore. According to Ottawa dietician Cindy Sass, it is an unavoidable truth: at some point, everyone’s metabolism slows down.
A few friends have already seen it happen before graduating. One of them is Ariel Fried, a 22-year-old law student at Carleton. After sustaining a knee injury in third year that brought his quasi-competitive soccer career to a halt, he was left hardly able to walk, much less run. Not surprisingly, the drinking and late-night food quickly manifested around his waistline. At the beginning of his fourth year, with an almost fully recovered knee, he decided to join Weight-Watchers to lose the 15 pounds he’d added to his 5’9” frame.
But Ariel never really did Weight-Watchers. When he signed up, he learned all about the point system that Weight-Watchers prescribes to each its clients which, their public relations people say, makes it more a “weight management” tool than a diet. Ariel was given a 40 point allotment for every day based on his goals. Fruits and veggies didn’t cost him any points. Most bread products were around two points and anything cooked in oil had an additional two points tacked on. A bottle of beer was worth five points. But Ariel’s point-tracking effort has been half-hearted at best. He never writes down his points, he hardly ever uses the website, and when asked, he couldn’t tell me what the three-month $60 subscription actually bought him. Even still, Ariel has lost eight pounds since joining the program.
It has mostly helped to educate him on the smaller things. Now, instead of having a heavy snack, he’ll eat a mango; instead of eating out after the bar, he’ll pick up food and bring it home for the next morning. But these are about the only ‘sacrifices’ he’s made. Ariel still goes out at least once a week and still routinely orders an abominable series of drinks he calls “the line-up of legends”—a tequila shot followed by a jäger-bomb, followed by a rum and coke, and chased with a beer, totalling a calorie count he wouldn’t even hazard to guess at. Simply put, his lifestyle was tweaked rather than changed.
For most 22-year-old boys with a ‘weight issue’ these tweaks are enough. A study out of Université Laval in Quebec City showed that 37 per cent of staff at the school considered themselves “overweight” compared to only 23 per cent of students—yet students “showed less desirable eating patterns than staff members.” In short, most students could get away with it. With that said, certain bad habits were as common for staff as they were for students. Out of the more than 3000 people surveyed, very few staff met the daily requirements “for vegetable, fruit, and fish intake, or physical activity.”
This study points to a common trend in our fattening population. Most people—in university or not—do just enough to keep off the extra weight and up until that point, they do what they want. Cindy says this behaviour has created, what she calls, “skinny fat people.” These are the unhealthy men and women who “look fit” but, internally, face similar health risks as the obese. Yet, far fewer of these people feel the same sense of urgency to change their behaviour. The healthy lifestyle has become about appearances. It is less about being fit than it is about looking fit. As soon as the 15 pounds comes off, it’s back to old habits.
One of Ariel’s roommates, Dylan Lavin, has become well acquainted with these habits. In fact, the third year sociology student is the embodiment of what most mothers fear their boys will become when they leave for university. He’s the kind who stops off at the LCBO to grab a few cans of Strongbow cider to drink in the library while studying; the student who cuts out of his Friday lecture halfway through to go for afternoon beers; the guy who projectile vomits on the sidewalk out front of a nightclub after accidentally swallowing a mouthful of chewing tobacco (all these things happened on the same Friday, by the way); the guy who will shamelessly tell a reporter he always gets “sandwich stuff” in his chest hair; the guy who rarely eats anything at home that isn’t an oven-ready meal, a sandwich, cereal, or mac&cheese. This is the laid-back, hard drinking type we often associate with university, the more obviously unhealthy lifestyle. In two years they’ve lived together, Dylan’s habits have rubbed off on Ariel, whether that means sharing a box of Kraft Dinner or deciding to order in—again.
Ariel’s other roommate hardly ever orders in. If Dylan is the Ying of the University diet, Pavel Melnichuk is the Yang. As we sit down for a chat about eating and exercise habits, Pavel scoops spoonfuls of salmon caviar onto thick buttered slices of bread drizzled with honey. “It’s the black caviar that’s really expensive,” he tells me. He later mentions that this nine dollar container would have cost $300 if it were sturgeon roe.
Pavel has loved to cook ever since high school. Because of him, their fridge, freezer and pantries are full of all kinds of exotic ingredients, condiments and leftovers: Thai basil, white truffle oil, kefir yogurt, smoked salmon, tom yun soup, carbonara, yarlsburg cheese, cornish hens, veal scallopini, pork bola bola. Taking anything out of a fridge this full is a tense and strategic exercise, like playing jenga.
This passion for cooking has also rubbed off on Ariel and, in combination with Dylan’s less gourmet habits, Ariel has settled on a more moderate lifestyle. He doesn’t spend a hundred dollars a week on groceries like Pavel does because, every once in a while, he likes to eat out. But, he also doesn’t go out all the time because he enjoys preparing a nice meal just as much. As Ariel and I sit down for dinner, he brings out two pieces of roasted chicken and several thick portabello mushroom heads marinated in a port wine glaze and topped with goat cheese. “Alright Ariel,” I tell him, “now you’re just showing off.”
While home-cooked meals are certainly a step in the right direction, health-wise, Cindy says it would be a mistake to think that eating at home automatically equals a healthier meal. This is especially true for inexperienced cooks, like second year students who have just moved into their first house.
Matt Chong is now 27 and he graduated from Carleton back in 2007. In his second year, he really began to take pride in his cooking. “It was my coming out party,” he says. There were a lot of pastas, breads and complex carbohydrates; cheese and fatty meats; and of course no shortage of boxed, ready-made meals in his freezer. Now he’s got carrots, baby spinach, and red peppers in his fridge and steaks, chicken, homemade soups and chilli in his freezer. He still takes pride in his cooking, but he soon recognized that he was “going to balloon” if he kept eating like he did in second year.
Matt’s younger cousin happens to be my roommate. Like Matt, Connor Davies has begun to enjoy cooking and – though he isn’t overweight – he’s got the soft pokable belly to prove it. He likes to talk about food while we eat and cannot stand when something he’s prepared turns out wrong. In order to avoid having anything turn out wrong, he usually falls back on a few key flavour enhancers: butter, oil, lard, or some combination of these. Some time ago, he cooked a chicken casserole with veggies, chicken stock, white wine, bacon and butter. When I tried it, I was struck by the combination of flavours in the viscous jus that had collected around the meat and veggies. It tasted oddly like the gravy from Smoke’s poutine.
The fact remains that food that is bad for us often tastes the best, whether it’s cooked at home, eaten out, or ordered in. While Ariel is preparing the chicken, he calls out to Pavel who is hurriedly packing his bag before an exam.
“How do you do the chicken when you make it?” Ariel asks.
Pavel comes into the kitchen to reveal his secret technique. As the two of them stand over the pyrex dish with the pieces of uncooked chicken, Pavel cuts through three slices of butter. He drops one between the dish and the bottom of the chicken, slides one between the top layer of skin and the meat, and lays the final piece gently atop the skin he just folded over the other piece of butter. Then, he does the same for the other quarter chicken. Now, is all that butter necessary? Definitely not, but I’m sure you can guess how good it tasted.
Stress can often perpetuate some of these unhealthy habits, as it did back when Bryan Sirois started working. He graduated from Carleton in 2006 and now lives in a cozy, contemporary one-bedroom with his fiancée, Josée. When I arrive at his apartment, he has just finished roasting coffee beans which are spread out over the counter to cool off. His fridge is stocked, but not excessively so. Inside there is a fat glass pitcher of water, and some leftover Thai curried chicken and rice. When I ask about the single bottle of Coke he chuckles, knowing exactly what this article will be about. “That’s for the pulled pork,” he says.
Bryan hated his first job out of school. It was a government job as an HR business analyst. It was a dead end for him. His projects were being constantly stifled and office enthusiasm jumped no higher than it would at a funeral. Not surprisingly, physical activity wasn’t part of the culture there and his utter loss of motivation in his working life soon threw his diet into a sort of tailspin, rotating between four lunch spots: a local pizza joint, St. Hubert’s, McDonald’s and a quick serve shawarma franchise. After a long day, he would usually try to ease his nerves with a bit of weed which, inevitably, led to more take-out. Bryan, who was once a competitive cross country skier and member of Carleton’s varsity team, gained 40 pounds over the four years he worked this job, one after graduation and three working full time as a student. “I kind of brought my girlfriend down with me,” he adds. She put on 30 pounds while she was living with him.
Today, Bryan stands at a lean 195 pounds. After moving to a new job as an underwriter at Export Development Canada, his habits started to change. He is more motivated and his projects are moving at a faster pace. Fitness is now part of the culture at his workplace. His new colleagues play volleyball, run, lift weights, and bike, so, Bryan started to as well. He now hits the gym on his lunch break and runs half-marathons so he can see his training pay off. As he did all this, his girlfriend—now his fiancée—quickly shed the extra weight she’d put on.
“Who’s racing bike is that?” I ask, motioning towards the sleek red frame propped up in the small space between the couch and arm chair.
“That’s Josée’s,” he says. “I bought it for her birthday.” Josée just happens to be training for a triathlon.
But this healthier lifestyle doesn’t mean the partying stops. Just last weekend Bryan was out until four in the morning, splitting 60 beers with six of his friends from university. Last month he celebrated his bachelor party down in Vermont which, as Bryan’s old friend Matt Chong points out, wasn’t so different than a weekend in second year university: not a vegetable in sight, hardly a moment to sleep, big greasy breakfasts from Denny’s and not a single non-alcoholic beverage until Sunday.
University and working life accommodate all of these choices, healthy and unhealthy. If you remember, Smoke’s does 60 per cent of its business during the week when, as Ottawa store manager Matt Jenkyns says, the professional crowd from the surrounding offices descend on the shop to fill their bellies with the same steaming goodness as students. Sure, the ‘university diet’ is often unhealthier, but it doesn’t automatically change as soon as we transition into a full time job. It’s much more complicated than that.
As I leave the poutinerie that late night, I see a guy standing in the middle of the intersection, holding a poutine up in the air as his friends yell at him. With a dumb look of triumph on his face and little consideration for the fact that the light above him is green, he holds his arms open wide, embracing the frozen air in nothing but a t-shirt. After an approaching car is forced to stop, he stubbornly staggers over to the sidewalk. The driver patiently waits for him, knowing full well how these late night shenanigans work: until he’s staring the problem in the headlights, he’ll stay in that intersection for as long as he wants…