URC

The College Student’s Perception of Healthful Eating

Rebekah Tsang
The Master’s College

Abstract

Current research suggests college students have fluctuating eating patterns and are confused about what constitutes a healthful diet. The purpose of this study was to identify the sources by which college students receive nutritional information and what constitutes the best dietary plan for maintaining a healthful lifestyle. The survey instrument used in this study measured the perceptions of college students about their practices in healthful eating and the sources they consulted to receive healthful eating information. It aligned with research that suggests college students choose to consult peers and the Internet for nutritional information over the consultation of a professional. The survey also suggested that college students understand fast food to be contradictory to a healthful lifestyle and choose to minimize their carbohydrate intake but are confused about the best dietary plan to maintain a healthful lifestyle. The results indicate that college students consult their peers and the internet over a professional with regards to healthful eating and that professionals in nutrition should find creative ways to demonstrate proper nutritional habits through the use of peer teaching and through avenues such as the Internet.

Introduction

Current college students and twenty-first century adults assimilate a wide spectrum of opinions on what determines if a person is healthy or not. Keeling’s research revealed that “female dietetics majors used both healthy and unsound weight-loss strategies (and depended upon both reasonable and questionable sources of information)” (Keeling, 2001, p.154), which may indicate that the general population is muddled by the mixed messages and nutritional propaganda they receive from both the government and weight-loss program marketers.

Knowledge Base Relating to Dietary Plans

Kara Chan found that effective health communication to young people “requires a solid understanding of their perceptions of healthful and unhealthy eating habits, their perceptions of various socializing agents, other sources communicating with them about eating, and their perceptions of different communication appeals” (Chan, Prendergast, Gronhoj, & Bech-Larsen, 2009, p. 475). In order to combat the confusion of college students, it is important to know where they receive dietary advice and the ways they choose to implement it so that healthcare professionals and nutrition providers will know how to influence the population to clarify the principles of healthful eating.

In 2005 the USDA spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, Cynthia Sass, stated, “There’s a lot of dietary confusion out there” (Grotto, 2005, p. 2). This statement suggested that college students of the twenty-first century have heard conflicting messages about nutrition in their adolescence. The booklet titled “Setting the Record Straight,” published by the Wheat Foods Council, has been created in order to combat a 1997 nutrition trends survey that revealed “23 percent of Americans are confused and frustrated about conflicting nutrition studies and reports” (Wheat Foods Council, n.d, p. 3). When it comes time for them to determine their own eating habits, many are confused about what constitutes healthful eating while others fall prey to dangerous diets that advertise the ability to become a quick weight-loss program. Alan Schwitzer found it is almost normal that college students would struggle with issues such as anorexia or bulimia (Keeling, 2001, p. 155). The commonality of eating disorders and general confusion of the population indicate that most people are not properly informed about healthful eating habits.

McArthur and Howard found that knowledge of proper dietary practices alone does not influence the implementation of sound dietary habits in a study of female dietetics majors who “used both healthy and unsound weight-loss strategies” (Keeling, 2001, p. 154) based upon both reasonable and questionable sources of information. The results of this study suggested that individuals may either know proper dietary practices and choose not to apply them or that they are confused about them.

Fad Diets

Dietary trends have waxed and wained throughout the past fifty years. Professionals such as Dr. Irwin Stillman, in 1967, promoted the elimination of carbohydrates and the consumption of large amounts of water. In 1972, Dr. Atkins advertised a high protein, low carbohydrate diet for weight loss. Liquid diets were made famous by Oprah Winfrey in 1988 through the 67-pound weight loss on the Optifast diet, though she gained it back again quickly. High protein diets made a comeback in 1995 through Berry Sears who advertised his diet The Zone. These diets were predominantly propagated by medical doctors with no formal nutritional training. They promised quick weight-loss, but maintenance of the diet would be difficult and sometimes harmful to one’s health. The Wheat Foods Council has advised people to steer clear of diets that claim to be quick, banish fat, contain a secret formula, balance hormones, introduce a new breakthrough, or help an enzymatic process (Wheat Foods Council, n.d, p. 12).

Healthful Eating and Fast Food in the Diet of the American

 Today many fast food restaurants are publishing nutrition facts both in the store and on their websites. These facts may inform the consumer about the nutritional value included in their meal. Much like the nutrition label found on the boxes of readymade foods, the caloric value, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrate, fiber, sugar, protein, and cholesterol values are found for fast food restaurant items (Turley, 2009, p.355).

Eating consistently at fast food restaurants is becoming more and more common to the American family. This is dangerous to the health of Americans because fast food is “notoriously heavy in calories” (Turley, 2009, p. 355). Studies find the average adolescent eats at fast food restaurants several times per week and those who consume “fast food three or more times a week take in 40 percent more calories and 10 percent more fat” (Hearst, Pasch, Fulkerson, & Lytle, 2009, p. 285) compared to those who never eat at fast food restaurants. Studies suggest that these adolescents are less likely to consume vegetables, fruits and juices, milk, and legumes (Hearst, Pasch, Fulkerson, & Lytle, 2009, p. 285). Studies on the nutrition content of fast food diets found that it is difficult to consume a healthful diet by primarily consuming fast foods (Turley, 2009, pp. 362-363).

The Importance of Eating Healthfully

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a document compiled by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to inform the general population as well as medical professionals, nutritionists, and nutrition educators about “sound dietary advice for improving diets and reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases” (Anding, Suminski, & Boss, 2001, p. 167). This document, as well as the Food Guide Pyramid, was published by the government to inform the public about proper dietary habits to encourage healthful eating and lifestyle choices. A healthful diet, as described by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is one that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat free or low fat products. It includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts, as well as remains low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars (mypyramid.gov, 2010).

Studies reveal that diets high in fat are associated with an increased risk for heart disease, obesity, and some cancers (Anding, Suminski, & Boss, 2001, p.170). Consuming excessive calories and an absence of consistent physical exercise will result in weight gain. Improper dietary habits and a lack of the knowledge of proper nutrition have caused a developing rise in obesity in many countries. Studies in the communication of dietary practices have developed since the obesity rates have been increasing globally (Chan, Prendergast, Gronhoj, & Bech-Larsen, 2009, p. 475). The importance of eating healthfully is not only to maintain ones appearance or boost self-esteem but also to prevent diseases associated with obesity and create a better quality of life for those who choose to live healthfully.

Studies suggest that college students have a heightened sense of invulnerability to health risks (Baxter, Egbert, & Ho, 2008, p.427). Believing that the patterns of nutrition formed in the college years cannot affect one’s future is a frequent false assumption. Improving eating habits while in college “has the potential to improve […] long term health outcomes as well” as even the outcome of their own children’s future (Pearson & Young, 2008, p. 214). The challenge at hand is that “many adolescents do not perceive a need or urgency to adopt healthy eating because the long term benefits of good health seem too far away” (Chan, Prendergast, Gronhoj, & Bech-Larsen, 2009, p. 484). The importance of adopting proper eating habits when young is essential to the overall health of a person; therefore healthful eating must be emphasized and information must be tailored to informing others about the necessity of healthful eating.

Using the Internet as a Resource

The internet contains a myriad of information about healthful living, but the Database of Adverse Events Related to the Internet has found that the “use of poor-quality information found on the Internet may lead to adverse health outcomes,” (Banas, 2008, p. 228) including psychological and physical harm. “According to the Pew Internet American Life Project, on any given day, over 8 million Americans use the Internet to research health topics” (Banas, 2008, p. 228). Health advice sought may include doctor information, information regarding a particular health condition, and nutrition. A 2002 study found that 73 percent of college students use the Internet to locate health information (Banas, 2008, p. 229).

A study by Baxter, Egbert, and Ho found that health communication that was intentionally sought out by college students often occurred in the form of computer media. This indicates that the Internet is a popular resource for acquiring nutrition information, but the problem with having nutrition information readily available is that both good and bad information can be found. Therefore, the consumer must have greater discernment in his health literacy. Online heath seekers must develop the skills to find, retrieve, analyze, and use the health information found on the Internet (Banas, 2008, p.229).

Receiving Nutrition Information from a Professional

In 2005 the HHS and USDA created the sixth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This 80-page document is primarily intended to be used by policy makers, healthcare providers, nutritionists, and nutrition educators (Report of the DGAC on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, E4-6). Healthcare professionals are trained to understand the comprehensive nature of the practices required to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Baxter, Egbert, and Ho (2008) found that “Health care experts and professionals were more likely than other relationship types to be consulted” for health information and advice regarding general health inquiries. However, this advice, in comparison to other channels of health information, was a small percentage in comparison to other methods of health communication.

Developing Eating Habits through Peer Advice

Studies conducted by Baxter, Egbert, & Ho (2008) have found that diet and nutrition was one of the top four topics of health communication comprising 23 percent of all health communication experiences. Their study also revealed that 48 percent of all health communication occurred interpersonally through face-to-face contact, and of these contacts 36 percent of them were friends while 17 percent of them were peers. College students turn to healthcare professionals regarding health advice only 3 percent of the time. This study also suggested that face-to-face (42 %) inquiries about diet and nutrition were slightly more likely to occur over information gathered through mass media (41 %) and college students were more likely to discuss diet and nutrition with their friends than any other health issue (Baxter, Egbert, & Ho, 2008, p. 430). According to Keeling, educating college students about the proper nutrition by showing them the food pyramid is not likely to be successful in creating proper eating habits because of the great influence of the social media, a plethora of information, and an uncertainty about their self-image (Keeling, 2001, p. 155). College students are at an age where they encounter many other influencing forces that determine how they choose to direct their lifestyles and must assimilate a wide variety of conflicting information.

College students utilize their peers’ advice for nutrition and diet more than any other health-related topic, found the studies of Baxter, Egbert, & Ho (Baxter, Egbert, & Ho, 2008, p. 430). A study by Pearson and Young suggested that one factor that may play into the motivation for college students to seek nutrition and dietary advice from their peers is that self-perception and beliefs others embrace about dietary patterns strongly influence the college-age population. This may result in a large failure to adopt healthy eating patterns (Pearson & Young, 2008, p. 219).

Method

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to identify the sources by which college students received nutrition information and what they believed to be an optimum diet for maintaining a healthful lifestyle based on their source of information. Generating from the purpose statement above, the following research questions were cited:

  1.  Upon what sources do current college students rely for their nutritional information?
  2. Which dietary plan does the current college student believe to be the best for maintaining a healthful lifestyle?

Method of Data Collection

A survey instrument was used in this study to identify the sources by which college students receive nutrition information and what they believe to be an optimum diet for maintaining a healthful lifestyle based on their source of information. A personal data sheet requested demographic data in addition to the responses to the six-item survey instrument. The survey instrument was distributed to college students through e-mail and Facebook in December of 2010 and January of 2011. The survey was conducted using surveymonkey.com, and results were received and tabulated by surveymonkey.com.

Statistical Procedure

STATPAK was employed to examine the data; the desired scale of measurement was ordinal. The ordinal scale ranks the order of the variables by giving them an order but does not determine how far apart these ranks are placed (Brown, Cozby, Worden, & Kee, 1999, p. 56). Data were measured using a Likert-type scale in which the participants communicated their opinion in the categories of strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. The One-Dimensional Chi-Square statistical test was employed because it is a statistic for testing the null hypothesis of no association in the population (McClendon, 2004, p.441). A 0.05 level of significance was used to test the results of the study. Data retrieved from the demographic portion of the survey instrument were reported in percentages and figures.

Results

The subjects sampled for this study were college students from The Master’s College and various other colleges in the United States during December of 2010 or January of 2011. Many links to the survey instrument were distributed; seventy were actuated and seventy were used in this study.  The sample indicated 28.6 percent male participants and 71.4 percent female participants. Of the population sampled 17.1 percent were freshmen, 15.7 percent were sophomores, 31.4 percent were juniors, and 35.7 percent were seniors. The sample indicated that 27.1 percent of participants had completed a nutrition course and 71.9 percent of participants had not. 92.9 percent of participants believed healthful eating to be important to them, and 7.1 percent of participants believed that healthful eating was not important. 

Table 1 Summary of Responses to Survey Questions

Survey Question

Scale Number

 

 

 

 

Total Responses

Computed Chi-Square Value

Tabled Chi-Square Value

 

Strongly Disagree

Disagree

Agree

Strongly Agree

No Response

 

 

 

1

9

39

18

2

2

68

45.5294

7.82

2

1

16

41

10

2

68

51.8824

7.82

3

4

28

34

2

2

68

47.2941

7.82

4

8

30

23

6

3

67

24.2836

7.82

5

15

33

19

1

2

68

24.2836

7.82

6

4

29

29

6

2

68

34.0000

7.82

Research Question One

Upon what sources do current college students rely for their nutritional information? Questions 3, 4, and 6 of the survey addressed this research question. 

The results of the analysis revealed that the calculated values were at the 0.05 significance level and suggested that current college students may rely on the Internet and peers’ advice for information about healthful eating.

The results of question 3 indicated that most college students do not seek advice for healthful eating from a professional in the medical field or nutrition. This finding aligned with the research of Jennifer Banas (2008) who found that college students find healthful eating information from their peers.

The findings for question 4 suggested that most college students do not seek advice for healthful eating from a professional in the medical field or nutrition. This finding aligns with the research of Baxter, Egbert, and Ho who found that only 3 percent of the time college students would turn to healthcare providers for information regarding health advice (2008, p.430).

Question 8 concluded that more students reported using the Internet to locate information for healthful eating. This finding aligned with the research of Banas that found that students do rely on the Internet to locate information regarding healthful eating. She also observed that 73 percent of college students use the Internet to locate health information (Banas, 2008, p. 229). Although the results of this survey did not provide the same 75 percent affirmation, the data suggests there are more college students who seek healthful information on the Internet than those who do not.

Research Question Two

Which dietary plan does the current college student believe to be the best for maintaining a healthful lifestyle? Questions 1, 2, and 5 of the survey addressed this research question. The results of the analysis revealed that the calculated values were at the One-Dimensional Chi-Square 0.05 level of significance and suggest that participants could be influenced by fad diets in their eating habits. The findings also suggest that a large percentage of college students are confused about healthful eating, but they believe fast food to be contradictory to a healthful lifestyle.

The findings from question 1 indicated that 29.4 percent of those surveyed are confused about the best dietary plan for healthful eating. This finding aligned with the survey completed in 1997 by the Nutrition Trends Survey that revealed that 23 percent of Americans were confused with dietary plans for healthful eating.

The findings from question 2 indicated that students agreed that fast food is contradictory to a healthful lifestyle, which aligns with the research of Hearst, Pasch, Paulkerson, and Lytle (2009) whose studies proposed that eating fast food is a perceived barrier to healthful eating. Thus it is accurate to say that fast food is contrary to a healthful diet. This survey suggested that college students have an accurate view of fast food because research indicated that it was difficult to consume a healthful diet by primarily consuming fast foods (Turley, 2009).

The results of question 5 demonstrated that the population that chooses to minimize carbohydrate intake is statistically significant. This observation was further supported by the research of Keeling who concluded that college students used both sound and unsound weight loss practices (Keeling, 2001, p. 154). This statistic suggests that college students may be affected by nutrition reports that advocate the limitation of carbohydrate consumption and therefore alter their eating habits based upon these assumptions.

Findings

Within the stated purpose and findings of this study, the following conclusions appear warranted:

  1. The Internet and college peers are large influencing forces that determine perception of healthful eating among college students.
  2. College students are confused about the best dietary plans for healthful eating.

Implications

Because of these findings dietitians and healthcare professionals must present information regarding healthful eating in forms such as Internet articles that would be easily accessible to college students in order for them to be more informed about healthful eating habits. 

This study also revealed that many college students do not understand the principles for healthful eating, but they do understand that fast food is not a healthful habit. College students may understand these principles of healthful eating but their practices are unknown. There may be a large discrepancy between the knowledge of healthful eating and the practices of healthful eating among college students.

Limitations of the Study

Several limitations to this study existed. Students surveyed may not have an accurate perception of their dietary patterns. The study was limited to college students of 2010 to 2011. Although the findings for this study pertain mainly to college students in the year 2010 and 2011, a general trend may be observed and conclusions drawn.

Recommendations for Further Study

This study provided some information regarding the dietary choices and influencing forces of these dietary decisions among college students.  Additional questions pertaining to dietary choices and influencing forces of these dietary decisions among college students warrant further investigation; thus, the following recommendations for further research and study are offered:

  1. This study should be replicated using a different population to determine dietary choices and influencing forces of these dietary decisions among college students.
  2. A study should be conducted to determine what kind of dietary practices for healthful eating the current college student embraces.
  3. The effects of advertisements for healthful eating should be studied.
  4. A study should be conducted to determine how college students make their daily food choices.

References

Anding, J.D., Suminski, R.R., & Boss, L. (2001). Dietary intake, body mass index, exercise, and alcohol: Are college women following the dietary guidelines for Americans? Journal of American College Health. 49.

Banas, J. (2008, Jul/Aug). A tailored approach to identifying and addressing college students’ online health information literacy. American Journal of Health Education. 39(4).

Baxter, L. Egbert, N., & Ho, E. (2008, Jan/Feb). Everyday health communication experiences of college students. Journal of American College Health. 56(4).

Brown, K. W., Cozby, P.C. Kee, D.W., & Worden, P.E. (1999). Research methods in human development. Mountain View: Mayfield.

Chan, K., Prendergast, G., Gronhoj, A., & Bech-Larsen, T. (2009). Adolescents’ perceptions of healthy eating and communication about healthy eating. Health Education. 109(6).

DGAC. (2010). History of the dietary guidelines, appendix E-4. Report of the DGAC on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Retrieved from mypyramid.gov

Grotto, D. (2005, June). Treasures found in mypyramid still may be a great mystery to many. Nation’s Restaurant News, 39 (25), 16,61. Retrieved October 14, 2010 from Business Module. (Document ID:861627782).

Hearst, M., Pasch, K., Fulkerson, J., & Lyle, L. (2009). Does weight status influence weight-related beliefs and the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food purchases in adolescents? Health Education Journal, 68(4), 284-295.

Keeling, R. (2001). Food: Sustenance and symbol. Journal of American College Health. 49.

McClendon, M. J. (2004). Statistical analysis: In the social sciences. Wadsworth.

Pearson, R., & Young, M. (2008, Jul/Aug). College students’ judgment of others based on described eating pattern. American Journal of Health Education. 39 (4).

Turley, J. (2009). Using fast food nutrition facts to make healthier menu selections. American Journal of Health Education, 40(6), 355-363. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Wheat Foods Council. (n.d). Setting the record straight. Wheat Foods Council. Parker, CO.

 


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