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Campus food and beverage purchases and off-campus living

Food environments can have an important influence on eating behaviors1. Young adults have the poorest dietary habits of all age groups, including frequent fast-food consumption2,3 and low rates of adherence to national dietary guidelines4,5. Previous research suggests that campus food environments may influence the dietary decisions of students who live on campus, but it is not known whether students who live off campus are similarly affected.

The study examined the relationship between food/beverage purchasing behaviors and diet quality in college students living off campus. The aim was to examine the frequency of purchasing food and beverages from campus area venues, purchasing fast food, and bringing food from home. The study also explored the dietary intake and meal patterns of college students who frequently perform these behaviors.

Data were collected from a web-based questionnaire completed by 1,059 students living off campus (mean age=22 years) from one community college and one public university. The questionnaire self-reported socio-demographic characteristics and frequency of purchasing food/beverages. Dietary outcomes took into account breakfast and evening meal consumption (day/week) and summary variables of fruit and vegetable, dairy, calcium, fiber, added sugar, and fat intake were calculated from food frequency screeners.

Overall, 45% of students purchased food/beverages from at least one campus area venue ≥3 times a week Beverages were the most common type of campus area purchasing (27% purchased ≥ 3 times a week). Vending machines were the least common, with slightly more than half of students never making these kinds of purchases.

About 45% of students made ≥3 purchases per week from at least one campus area source. Bringing food from home to consume on campus was also common. Nearly half of all students (46%) stated doing so at least three times a week. Frequent fast food purchasing was less common, with 22% of students purchasing fast food (such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardee’s ) at least three times a week.

Socio demographic characteristic associated with purchasing behavior

No differences in purchasing behaviors were found for age or gender. But the study revealed that women consume food prepared at home more frequently than men (52% versus 40% for men). Students living in the home of their parent(s) or family are more likely to purchase food/beverages on campus (52%). Students receiving public assistance were nearly twice as likely as those not receiving assistance to frequently purchase fast food.

Association between bringing food from home and healthy dietary practices

When examining all three purchasing behaviors (campus area, fast food, and bringing food from home) simultaneously, campus area and fast food purchasing were both independently associated with higher consumption of fat and added sugars. Students who frequently purchased food/beverages on or near campus had poorer dietary patterns, which mirrored results for frequent fast-food consumers. In addition, they were more likely than other students to skip meals.

In contrast, students who frequently brought food from home to consume on campus had healthier dietary patterns and consumed breakfast approximately one more day per week than those who infrequently brought food from home.

Implications for Research and Practice

Previous studies have found that eating in prepaid dining halls on college campuses may influence young adults’ dietary quality. This article extends this research by examining multiple food and beverage purchasing behaviors on and off campus and focusing exclusively on students living off campus.

Signifi cant measures are necessary to ensure a healthy and balanced diet among students. Health promotion efforts on college campuses should consider policy and environmental strategies to increase healthy food availability and purchasing on campus. Food and nutrition practitioners also have opportunities to promote home food preparation among college students, which may help positively shape young adults’ diets.

Based on: Pelletier JE, Laska MN. Campus food and beverage purchases are associated with indicators of diet quality in college students living off campus. Am J Health Promot. 2013 Nov-Dec;28(2):80-7.

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