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Dietary patterns of university students in the UK: a multi-centre, cross-sectional study

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Eleanor Sprake, J Russell, J. E. Cecil, R. Cooper, P. Grabowski, L. Pourshahidi, M. E. Barker

School/Research organisations


Background: University represents a key transition into adulthood for many adolescents but there are associated concerns about health and behaviours. One important aspect relates to diet and there is emerging evidence that university students may consume poor quality diets, with potential implications for body weight and long-term health. This research aimed to characterise dietary patterns of university students in the UK and their sociodemographic and lifestyle antecedents.
Methods: An online, cross-sectional survey was undertaken with a convenience sample of 1448 university students from five UK universities (King’s College London, Universities of St Andrews, Southampton and Sheffield, and Ulster University). The survey comprised a validated food frequency questionnaire alongside lifestyle and sociodemographic questions. Dietary patterns were generated from food frequency intake data using principal components analysis. Nutrient intakes were estimated to characterise the nutrient profile of each dietary pattern. Associations with sociodemographic variables were assessed through general linear modelling.
Results: Dietary analyses revealed four major dietary patterns: ‘vegetarian’; ‘snacking’; ‘health-conscious’; and ‘convenience, red meat & alcohol’. The ‘health-conscious’ pattern had the most favourable micronutrient profile. Students’ gender, age, year of study, geographical location and cooking ability were associated with differences in pattern behaviour. Female students favoured the ‘vegetarian’ pattern, whilst male students preferred the ‘convenience, red meat & alcohol’ pattern. Less healthful dietary patterns were positively associated with lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, low physical activity and take-away consumption. The health-conscious pattern had greatest nutrient density. The ‘convenience, red meat & alcohol’ pattern was associated with higher weekly food spending; this pattern was also identified most consistently across universities. Students reporting greater cooking ability tended towards the ‘vegetarian’ and ‘health-conscious’ patterns.
Conclusions: Food intake varied amongst university students. A substantial proportion of students followed health-promoting diets, which had good nutrient profiles obviating a need for dietary intervention. However, some students consumed poor diets, incurred greater food costs and practised unfavourable lifestyle behaviours, which may have long-term health effects. University policy to improve students’ diets should incorporate efforts to promote student engagement in cooking and food preparation, and increased availability of low cost healthier food items.


Original languageEnglish
Article number90
JournalNutrition Journal
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2018

    Research areas

  • Food consumption, Principal components analysis, Survey, University students

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