Eating Habits and Dietary Intake: Is Adherence to Dietary Guidelines Associated with Importance of Healthy Eating among Undergraduate University Students in Finland?

Walid El Ansari, Sakari Suominen, Anastasia Samara
Central European Journal of Public Health 2015, 23 (4): 306-13

AIM: Poor eating habits among young adults are a public health concern. This survey examined the eating habits of undergraduate university students in Finland. We assessed students' dietary intake of a variety of food groups, their adherence to international dietary guidelines (whole sample and by gender), and the associations between importance of eating healthy and dietary guidelines adherence (whole sample and by gender).

METHODS: During the 2013-2014 academic year, 1,189 undergraduate students enrolled at the University of Turku in southwestern Finland completed an online self-administered questionnaire. Students reported their eating habits of 12 food groups, the number of daily servings of fruits/vegetables they consume and how important it is for them to eat healthy. For dietary adherence recommendations, we employed WHO guidelines. Chi-square statistic tested the differences in dietary guidelines adherence between males and females and also the associations between the gradients of importance of healthy eating and the self reported eating habits for each of the food groups, for the whole sample and by gender.

RESULTS: We observed high levels of dietary adherence (>70%) for most of the 'unhealthy food' items (cake/cookies, snacks, fast food/canned food, and lemonade/soft drinks), and moderate adherence for most of the 'healthy food' items (>50%) (dairy/dairy products, fruit/vegetables servings/day, fresh fruit, salads/raw vegetables and cereal/cereal products). Fish/seafood, meat/sausage products and cooked vegetables had levels <50% for adherence to the guidelines. Women had better adherence for meat/sausage products, fast food/canned food and for most 'healthy food' items (p≤0.001), whereas men had better adherence for sweets (difference=12.8%, p≤0.001), lemonade/soft drinks (difference=16.7%, p≤0.001) and fish/seafood (difference=6.6%, p=0.040) compared to women. Most students considered important to eat healthy (78.8%). The importance of eating healthy was significantly associated with adherence for all food groups besides sweets and cake/cookies. These associations remained significant for women but some of them not for men (cereal/cereal products, snacks and sweets).

CONCLUSIONS: The results suggest high adherence to the guidelines mainly for 'unhealthy food' groups, and moderate adherence for healthier food groups. There was also accordance between regarding eating healthy as important and actually eating healthy. However, there are improvements to be considered for specific food groups, as well as gender differences when implementing public health strategies related to food intake.

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