Researchers find loneliness linked with unhealthful diets, physical inactivity among college students

Transitioning to a new environment, as many college freshmen do, can increase feelings of loneliness, and according to the National College Health Assessment, feelings of loneliness in college students have increased dramatically in the last decade.

According to a 2021 survey, 44 per cent of US college students described their weight as higher than normal, i.e. overweight or obese. Despite the fact that loneliness has been linked to unhealthy weight and physical inactivity, there is a lack of research on dietary behaviours in college students and the role it can play in college student obesity.

With data from the Mason: Health Starts Here cohort study, Master of Nutrition alum Li Jiang found that loneliness was related to altered diet quality and physical inactivity. The research was done as part of Jiang’s master’s thesis, and Mason Nutrition and Food Studies Department Chair Lawrence J. Cheskin, Associate Professor Lilian de Jonge, former faculty member Cara Frankenfeld, and former postdoctoral fellow Ziaul H. Rana also contributed to the project.

“Our study supports a potential need for further research in understanding unhealthful dietary behavior and physical activity which may be related to loneliness, an emotion that impacts many college students,” said Jiang.

Sedentary (19.2 per cent) and low active (53.8 per cent) behaviors were more frequent in students reporting high loneliness (score ranges of 4-6 and 7-9) than those reporting low loneliness (score of 10-12). Students reporting more loneliness had higher fat diets than students reporting less loneliness.

“Interventions to reduce loneliness may have a positive effect on health promotion in this population. This data go along with other initial findings from the Health Starts Here study that college students are not meeting healthy dietary guidelines or getting enough physical activity,” said Cheskin, who has an MD.

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