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Fast food firmly entrenched in students' lifestyle

Recent research backs up University of Leicester campaign to promote healthy eating amongst students

Issued on 11 January 2010

A survey of eating habits among first year self-catering students showed that university lifestyle tends to lead to an increased consumption of fast foods.

This was more noticeable amongst male students, who confessed to thinking of cooking as ‘women’s work’ and were more likely to eat fast food than their female counterparts, while female students were more likely to be influenced by worries about weight gain and appearance.

The study, carried out by student Hannah Cooper under the supervision of Dr Ellen Annandale at the University of Leicester Department of Sociology, also indicated that students’ fast food consumption increased when they left home and began to cater for themselves, in spite of the known link between fast food consumption and obesity.

Convenience, peer pressure and budget appear to be the main reasons for their eating habits, while the gender difference is widened by a male culture of greater alcohol consumption – though males also played more sport.

Another factor in students’ choice of fast foods was quite simply that they liked it. Pizza proved to be favourite, followed by pasta, curry and French fries.

While the students studied felt that living among new people had not influenced their eating habits, nevertheless peer pressure played a major role in decisions about when and what to eat and whether or not to cook for themselves.

Hannah Cooper commented: “Students might be tired and not feel like cooking. Fast food marketing makes it very accessible, and if several students combine to order fast food together then it becomes an even cheaper option.

“At home their parents probably provided their meals. They come to university and have to start managing and budgeting for themselves. They didn’t seem to have the knowledge of how to manage money in relation to food, and fast food was sometimes seen as cheaper than cooking.

“They knew that fast food was less healthy than home cooked food, but that knowledge wasn’t strong enough to override their lifestyle. Peer pressure can be very strong. One male student reported that when he ordered a salad at a pub his friends jeered at him.”

The Department of Health has linked fast food consumption to the growing rise in the nation’s obesity, yet one problem may be that eating unhealthily when young may not lead to obesity and health problems until later in life.

Of the sample consulted by Hannah Cooper, while 59% admitted their eating habits had changed for the worse, only 29% felt their weight had increased since becoming students, and these tended to be those who did less exercise and drank more alcohol.

The University of Leicester is developing strategies to combat students’ reliance on fast foods. Frances Stone from the Residential and Catering Services commented: “I found Hannah’s report very informative, giving support to our assumption based on anecdotal evidence. We encourage students to eat healthily and do hold regular Healthy Living weeks in residences. We support the studentcooking.tv, which is a lively, informative and stylish Internet-based video service that shows students how to cook great tasting meals on a budget.

“We have also arranged for a Student Survival Guide to be distributed to all students communal areas. This extensive guide gives students advice on healthy eating, shopping starter kits and techniques and equipment. It covers areas such as brain boosting breakfasts, energising lunches and simple budget beating meals. The guide concentrates on what students should be including in their diet.

“We look forward to continuing our work to help students find their way around the healthy living agenda”

Hannah Cooper is now taking her research further with a MSc in Social Research at the University of Leicester. “I would like to make a difference,” she said. “I think policies designed to improve the dietary behaviour of students should be tailored by gender and specific attention paid to the body dissatisfaction reported by females.

“My findings showed males as more likely to view work surrounding food as a female task. This may be due to the lack of socialisation they receive at home. Maybe intervention into the prevention of obesity in later life should start earlier for males and be undertaken in the home to produce the most beneficial results.”

Dr Annandale commented: “It isn’t just a question of knowledge, as many students are aware of what constitutes a healthy diet. It is the social context in which students live that pushes them towards a lifestyle that might be unhealthy.”

Notes to Editors: More details follow. For further information on this please contact Hannah Cooper, email hc103@le.ac.uk. Telephone number available from University of Leicester Press Office on 0116 252 2415.

Or Dr Ellen Annandale, email eca7@leicester.ac.uk, tel (0)116 252 2739.

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