The Ramen Noodle Diet: Not Just for College Students

Whenever my mom tells stories about her life as a young working professional, they typically include her reminiscing about her first job, her first apartment and how she lived off meals like packaged Ramen noodles.

I realized I had come to a similar point in my life as I carefully stacked about thirty-two packages of Ramen noodles on top of my fridge. Decades later, instant ramen noodles could still give college students (including me) a quick, easy and moderately tasty meal for a very low cost.

My mom wasn’t kidding when she said Ramen was cheap. Even now, a twelve pack of beef flavored Maruchan Ramen is just under $2.25. That’s potentially twelve “meals” for just 19 cents each. But while they may be cheap, these “meals” are far from nutritious.

A typical package of Nissen Top Ramen “Oodles of Noodles” contains about 380 calories, 14 grams of fat and over 1,800 mg of sodium—over two thirds of the FDA recommended maximum amount and ten times the minimum daily amount.

An excess of sodium in a person’s diet can increase risk of heart failure, stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure. These instant ramen noodles also contain other potentially harmful ingredients: MSG and palm oil. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists nausea, chest pain, and difficulty breathing for those with asthma as potential side effects of the consumption of MSG.  The palm oil has high saturated fat, which can lead to elevated risk of heart disease. 

Beyond College: Ramen out of Necessity

While the combination of ingredients is hazardous to health, it has not hindered ramen’s growing popularity. In 2012, over 100 billion servings of ramen noodles were eaten worldwide: about 14 servings for every person on the planet.

What many people don’t realize is that cheap processed foods like Ramen are not just for college students or people trying to make ends meet. For many Americans, processed foods like Ramen are dietary staples.

For the millions of low-income Americans who receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Action Program (SNAP), living on a daily food budget of only four dollars is a fact of life. Their options are severely limited to cheap meals -- like Ramen for 19 cents.

While it’s easy to suggest alternatives, like going to farmers markets to buy less expensive fresh food, many of those Americans don’t even have the option of going to a fully stocked store. According to the USDA’s recent economic research, 23.5 million people live in food deserts, communities without easy access to fresh, healthy food. More than half of people living in food deserts are low-income.


 USDA Food Desert Map


What happens when you try to live on Ramen alone? Bravely undertaking the Ramen noodle challenge, Kieran “Danger” Dooley ate nothing but Ramen for thirty days, similar to Morgan Spurlock's “Supersize Me” documentary. The results: 1) he was incredibly lethargic, 2) he became physically ill and 3) he described the experience as self-torture.

For Americans who feed themselves on an extremely tight budget, the Ramen challenge never really ends. The health consequences of that high-sodium, high-fat, low-nutrient diet can develop even further over time, leading to dire consequences.

While policy changes like an increase SNAP funding and more government support of smaller local farmers are crucial to ameliorating the issue of food insecurity, the average consumer can still make a difference. They can also support their local farmers market, or join the Food Justice Movement, to spread awareness about this issue.

It’s easy to assume that someone who eats Ramen on a regular basis simply has unhealthy eating habits; but this assumption ignores a larger, more problematic picture. . A tight budget and little time to cook is an issue that transcends the university dorm room. From the college quad to the inner city project to the retirement home, children, moms, dads, veterans and senior citizens everywhere are increasingly finding themselves resigned to ramen.

Diana Wilkinson is a junior majoring in Journalism & Mass Communication at The George Washington University.

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