It’s a tired cliché that poor college students subsist on ramen. But it’s probably still true: Instant ramen is cheap, it’s tasty, and if you buy the kind in Styrofoam cups, you don’t even need a bowl or utensils to enjoy a hot meal. (Though “meal” is probably too generous a word.)
Especially for dorm-living underclassmen who don’t have access to a kitchen, ramen is an easy-to-prepare snack for those times when hunger strikes and the food court or cafeteria is closed. There’s probably a small percentage of college students out there who don’t quite live on the stuff, but who eat it most nights.
Which raises the question: Is ramen any good for you? And what would happen if you ate it all the time—say six or seven nights a week?
“In a just-add-water container of ramen, there isn’t a lot going on other than carbs and salt,” says Abbey Sharp, a Toronto-based dietician and author of the Mindful Glow Cookbook. The same goes for those square bricks of ramen that require a few minutes of boiling.
Sharp says ramen has little-to-no fiber or protein—which are two of the primary components of food that make a person feel full after eating. So ramen is unlikely to fill you up for very long, she says. “There’s also very little micronutrients going on, so it’s not contributing anything meaningful in the way of beneficial vitamins or antioxidants,” she says.
But back to the carbs and salt. Let’s say you’re hungry, and you decide to knock back two of those Styrofoam-cupped noodles. Depending on the product you buy, each one may contain 1150 mg (or more) of sodium. “That is extremely high,” says Jim White, a registered dietician nutritionist and owner of Jim White Fitness studios.
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White points out that the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Two cupped noodles would already hit that limit—and that’s not counting the pizza, fast food, and other sodium-loaded junk college students tend to eat.
Consuming too much salt can raise a person’s risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke in the long term, the CDC warns. But in the short-term, slurping that much sodium would likely lead to serious water retention, White says. That would promote weight gain, and also feeling bloated, sluggish, or lethargic, he says.
All that sodium would also drive dehydration, especially if a student is washing down their ramen with a half a case of beer or a few Red Bull and vodkas. Dehydration can lead to poor physical and cognitive functioning—including memory and attention issues—which isn’t ideal if a student has an exam coming up. It can also cause headaches and constipation, according to research from the University of North Carolina.
“Ramen also contains MSG and TBHQ, which may cause some unwanted side effects,” White says. MSG (or monosodium glutamate) is a non-essential amino acid that gives ramen a satisfying, umami-rich flavor. While the FDA considers MSG to be safe, some people report feeling nauseated, headachy, or otherwise unwell after eating it. TBHQ is also considered safe, though in high doses it has been linked with brain toxicity and some other health concerns.
The heavy dose of refined carbohydrates in ramen—that is, carbs stripped of their fiber—is also less than ideal, Sharp says. “You want to aim for at least half of your carbs coming from complex whole sources with the fiber intact,” she explains. Some research has linked the heavy consumption of refined carbs with the massive rise in weight gain and type-2 diabetes in the U.S.
None of this is to say ramen is total junk; it’s not. White points out that ramen does contain some micronutrients—namely riboflavin and thiamine. It’s also extremely low in sugar—another plus.
But most nutrition experts caution against eating ANYTHING too frequently—apart from maybe leafy greens. Even healthy foods can be not-so-healthy if eaten all the time and to the exclusion of other good stuff, White says. “Everything in moderation” isn’t the sexiest truism, but it definitely applies to food and nutrition.
Ramen isn’t the worst thing in the world for you. But if you eat it every night, you’ll probably gain weight, feel parched and lethargic the next morning, and maybe even experience some mood or concentration-related issues. Especially if the rest of your diet sucks—like, you’re eating fast food breakfasts and pizza for lunch—ramen isn’t a great way to cap off your day.
“I see ramen the same way I see a cupcake,” Sharp says. If you love the stuff, don’t deprive yourself. “But it should be seen as a treat—not as a meal, or even a satisfying snack,” she adds.
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