U of M research: young adults who purchase food on campus have similar diet to fast food consumers

Monday, November 4, 2013

Despite recent news of improvements in the diets of children and adolescents, University of Minnesota School of Public Health researchers have found that college campuses still have room for improvement.

According to new research, young adults in college who live off campus but purchase their food on campus have worse diets than their peers, while those who bring food from home have healthier diets. 

How much healthier? Based on the data, researchers equate the diets of students who buy food on campus to consumers who frequent fast food restaurants.

Although previous research indicated that young adults who prepare food at home had healthier diets than those who purchased most of their meals at fast food restaurants, it was not known where eating on campus fell into the equation.

“We were not surprised by the findings, because while campuses have tried to incorporate healthy options into their menus, a lot of the food available on college campuses is still similar to traditional fast food menus,” said lead author Jennifer E. Pelletier, M.P.H., a graduate researcher in the University’s School of Public Health. “In addition, some traditional fast food restaurants may be located on campus or in campus-owned facilities such as student unions.”

Pelletier and her co-author, Melissa N. Laska, Ph.D., R.D., are both researchers within the University of Minnesota School of Public Health’s Division of Epidemiology & Community Health. The latest study appears today in the American Journal of Health Promotion.

To arrive at their conclusion, Pelletier and Laska examined the characteristics and dietary behaviors of 1,059 students living off campus at a 2-year community college and a 4-year public university in the Minneapolis and St. Paul areas. Students reported their dietary behavior, how often they skipped meals, and whether they purchased food on campus, from fast food restaurants, and if they brought food from home.

The study found young adults who frequently purchased campus food and those who purchased fast food:

  • Had higher fat intake
  • Had higher added sugar intake
  • Skipped meals more often

While young adults who brought food from home:

  • Had lower fat intake
  • Had lower added sugar intake
  • Skipped meals less often
  • Ate more fruits and vegetables, fiber, dairy, and calcium

“Almost half of the young adults reported purchasing food on campus three times or more during the week,” said Pelletier. “Our findings suggest that where students buy food really matters, and we believe further effort should be put towards providing healthful options on and around college campuses.”

Nationwide, nearly half of high school graduates under age 25 are enrolled in a college or university, which Pelletier believes makes college campuses important settings for promoting healthy habits among this age group.

Pelletier concluded in saying, “The transition from adolescence to young adulthood is a time of increasing autonomy and responsibility, and establishing healthy eating habits during this period can set the stage for healthier behaviors later in life.”

For a webinar with Pelletier explaining her findings, please click here.