It’s back to school for everyone, which may result in dietary changes – for better or worse! Schools have been the target of a variety of nutritional interventions, and regulations have been put into place to encourage healthier eating among children and adolescents. You can check out the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nutrition Services and the School Nutrition Environment for the current state of school nutrition.
What about College/University students though? Is it because they are considered adults that there has been less focus on this demographic? Post-secondary students face critical nutritional challenges as they transition from high school to university; particularly if this transition means moving away from home and living on their own for the first time. Add to this the financial constraints and it could be a recipe for disaster – hence the infamous freshman fifteen.
What type of dietary habits are college students developing and can anything be done to promote healthier intakes?
Ouellette et al. (1) looked at the dietary patterns of 44 students attending the University of Connecticut using food records collected over 30 consecutive days. They found 40% of females had intakes of vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, and magnesium that were below the recommended intakes. While males were less likely to have micronutrient deficiencies, they consumed a greater portion of their total energy from protein and were more likely to use protein supplements. The majority of students were also below the recommended intake for potassium – the best source of which is fresh fruits and vegetables. Coincidence?
Another study again focused on gender differences in the dietary habits of college aged students. They found that male students needed to reduce their fat intakes; whereas, female students needed to increase their fibre and fruit and vegetable intakes.In general, female students had more healthful eating habits such as: reading food labels, eating in the dining hall, reduced fast food intakes and eating breakfast (2). However, whether these “healthful” habits actually translated to healthier intakes is questionable. Just because you read the label does not mean the choice is healthy!
I recently noticed a report from GrubHub about the ordering habits of college students. This prompted me to ask my students how they thought the college diet might differ from the general population. They immediate guessed an increased caffeine/energy drinks intake and a focus on lower priced meals – which often, although not always – translates to unhealthier options when ordering out.
Although my student group is a very small sample size, it does suggest that some students are aware of their unhealthier nutritional habits. They also note the pressures that lead them to make these choices and the immediate threat of an upcoming exam often outweighs thoughts of long term health.
Healthy habits should be within reach of college students as most campuses offer gyms, dietary counseling, some healthy food choices, and nutrition classes. Indeed, one study found that college students had lower risk factors for chronic disease due to lifestyle choices than their non-student counterparts (3). Importantly, however, the study was published in 1997 and there are likely other socioeconomic factors at play. It is known that new residence, academic and social pressures, weight concerns and access to fast foods in college students are contributing to inadequate nutrient intakes and Caloric imbalances (4,5). Support systems are needed for this demographic!
To this end, it appears that course work focusing on nutrition education can be beneficial as one program found a reduction in Caloric intake, however, the 13-week intervention did not improve body weight, significantly increase exercise or result in large improvements in dietary intakes (6). Clearly additional research and strategies are required in order to support college students in developing and maintaining healthy habits.
- Ouellette CD et al. (2012) Assessment of nutrient adequacy with supplement use in a sample of healthy college student. J Am Col Nutr 31(5):301-310.
- Li K. et al. (2012) An examination of sex differences in relation to the eating habits and nutrient intakes of university students. J Nutr Educ Behav 44(3):246-250.
- Georgiou CC et al. (1997) Among young adults, college students and graduates practiced more healthful habits and made more healthful food choices than did nonstudents. J Am Diet Assoc 97:754-759.
- Nelson MD et al. (2009) Food environments in university dorms: 20 000 calories per dorm room and counting. Am J Prev Med 36:523-526.
- Lowry R et al. (2000) Physical activity, food choice, and weight management goals an dpractices among US college students. Am J Prev Med 18:18-27.
- Bu S. (2013) Transitional changes in energy intake, skeletal muscle content and nutritional behavior in college students during course-work based nutrition education. Clin Nutr Res 2(2):b 125-134.