University of Leeds analyses student food choices to encourage healthy eating

Data scientists use anonymous data from pre-payment food cards to analyse first-year eating habits

Data scientists at the University of Leeds have used anonymous data from pre-payment food cards to analyse student food choices.

The findings, Assessing diet in a university student population: A longitudinal food card transaction data approach, have been published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

The study, which pre-dated the coronavirus outbreak, revealed what 835 first-year students aged 18 to 24 were buying in the campus refectory and associated food outlets during their first semester (12 teaching weeks).

It is the first study of its kind, previous studies having used food diaries, which relied upon students accurately, and honestly remembering what they ate.

This information could be used to target information about healthier eating to students

Student food choices

Student eating habits clustered around seven dietary behaviours, the study found:

  • Vegetarian: with popular purchases being salads, breakfast cereals, yoghurt and fromage frais and a notable absence of meat products
  • Omnivores: which included the most average amounts of all products purchased, with above average amounts of ice cream, desserts and cakes, breakfast cereals and fish.
  • Dieters: with above average purchases of soups, pasta, noodles and salad.
  • Dish of the Day: which included above average purchases of meat and meat products.
  • Grab and Go: which included above average purchases of sandwiches, crisps, nuts and eggs.
  • Carb Lovers: with bread, cheese, egg products and pasta being among the top picks.
  • Snackers: with confectionery, crisps, nuts being above average choices.

Dr Michelle Morris, a university academic fellow in health data analytics based at Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, said understanding student diet had public health implications.

“Our analysis shows that although some students followed one dietary pattern throughout the semester many switched between them.

“Some students moved from a more healthy to a less healthy pattern; for example,  some vegetarians switched to an omnivore diet; and vice versa with some of the students who started off as snackers – the least healthful diet – did move to the Dish of the Day, which offered a more balanced range of food options.

“Worryingly perhaps, the most popular move was from a dieter pattern, to the snacking pattern.”

Females were found to be heavily represented among the Vegetarians (88%) and Dieters (80%) while the men dominated the Dish of the Day (84%) and Grab and Go (62%) diet patterns.

The most popular dietary pattern amongst the slightly older students, those aged between 20 and 24, was the omnivore pattern of eating – perhaps because these students may already have lived away from home and settled into a more varied dietary pattern.

Health promotions

“The information from this analysis reveals the pattern of the students’ eating habits, and how that changes over time,” said Dr Morris. “That is information that could be used to target information about healthier eating to students.

“Research has shown that adult eating habits take root early in adulthood. So, time spent at university is a great time to encourage healthy eating behaviours that could remain with them for life.”

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council through a Strategic Network for Obesity grant. Maintaining the anonymity of the students was of utmost importance at all stages of the research.

Insights generated by the study are now being used by the university’s catering marketing team to help inform their health promotions to this group of students and others.

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