You are what you eat: what drives university student food choices?

09 June 2020

A new Notre Dame research project into the dietary habits and attitudes of emerging adults has some interesting things to say about health promotion in the era of the digital world.

The irony of a group of 20-something friends watching a health promotion advert on a wall-mounted television while they wait for their fish and chips would not be lost on University of Notre Dame Australia researcher Michelle Lambert.

As the oil bubbles and deep fries the potato, the television shows a man purchasing a soft drink from a deli and stepping outside to take a long swig. The camera shoots in towards his stomach and we are inside his body, looking at a churning set of organs, each one covered in some yellowish substance the voiceover informs us is excess toxic fat.

As the voiceover lists the many potential diseases one could get from toxic fat build-up, we zoom back out again, watching the man rub his bulging stomach in concern, before the health advice message plasters itself across the screen: “fat around your waste is bad, but toxic fat around your vital organs is worse”.

If the young adults had been watching and not absorbed in their phones, they may have taken in the message, but Michelle doesn’t think so, and now she has the research to prove it.

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There is a stigma surrounding the student diet, one of unhealthy, cheap, fast food options. Things like cup-a-soups and pot noodles, beans on toast and a scraping of peanut butter in a bread roll all topped off with a bag of lollies.

Unfortunately, this diet tends to be less than adequate in terms of nutrition and sustenance. A well-known urban legend plays on this, citing the story of a university student who spent all his grant money on gaming consoles and alcohol, before attempting to survive an entire year eating nothing but instant ramen noodles. Supposedly the student was the first recorded case of the pirate-era disease scurvy in over 100 years.

Often used as an example of what not to do at university, the mythical student instead became a figure of legendary status. The underlying warning of what can happen when following a poor diet seems to be lost on those sharing the story to their friends.

But diet is more important than many emerging adults realise and getting them to understand that is a challenge that needs to be addressed. That’s where Michelle comes in.

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“I was an art teacher,” Michelle says. She is sitting in her house in the Perth Hills speaking via Zoom.

“But as happens so often I just became the person who got asked to deliver health classes. I was interested in health, but it wasn’t my focus or speciality.”

Delivering health classes piqued Michelle’s interest in young people’s health and she went from teaching to teacher training, trying to improve the quality of health education students in WA were receiving. For nearly 10 years she worked in drug education, followed by a shift to family planning and sexual health education, eventually arriving at Notre Dame to teach health promotion.

“Once I’d been here for a year, a colleague suggested I should do some research in this area because of my passion for young people and their health.

“I thought, well, okay, here we go. So I started off applying to do a master's and then the project became bigger than Ben Hur. So I upgraded to a PhD, and now here I am six years later.”

It’s quite the transformation, from art teacher to health promotion PhD candidate, but Michelle believes her experience in the classroom sparked her love of helping younger people avoid negative consequences of risk-taking behaviour.

Just being a teacher, you get to see a lot of the behaviours that young people engage in. Then, as I became a parent myself, I started to worry about the future of my own children. So I decided that this was an area I was passionate to learn as much as I could about to help my own children. So they've had to live through me being a drug and sex expert!

“I think emerging adults sometimes feel as though people make assumptions about their behaviour and don't remember what it was like to be young. Yeah, they take risks and think they're invincible, and they all step up and do some dumb things. But, you know, they need people around them to actually help support them through that and get them back on track. And that's, I guess, my primary focus.”

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On face value, most people understand that eating well leads to better health, but the issue comes in trying to show emerging adults that the long-term effects on quality of life are just as important as the immediate benefits.

Being alive for longer is one thing, but what is the point of living for an extra ten years if they aren’t quality years? It’s a tough concept for younger people to fully understand.

“There’s no sense of urgency for them,” Michelle explains, “They see all the health campaigns, which are largely focused on middle-aged people who have got that middle age spread, and they think, ‘yeah, well, that's not me, I might have a heart attack, or I might get diabetes, but you know, when I'm 50, I'll be old and it won't matter.’ But as you get to be 50, you realise that actually does matter.”

That’s really where Michelle’s latest study came from. She realised that what was being done in health promotion may have been working for older generations, but it wasn’t resonating with younger people.

“I wanted to ask the question; is there something we can do at a younger age that might help to put them on a better path?”

You only have to look at the facts to know how significant this question and the potential answers are. About 28% of children and adolescents in Australia are classed as overweight or obese, and the majority of illnesses and conditions that kill Australians annually can be either developed or hugely exacerbated by being overweight. We spend billions of dollars on trying to cure diseases that Michelle says are preventable.

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That’s what health promotion is all about, trying to advocate for addressing these issues earlier, rather than waiting until it's already a problem. If they’re already overweight, they're already experiencing some health issues. It'd be so much nicer if we could prevent that from happening.

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Michelle’s study involved focus groups of university students who were asked to respond to a set of questions that assessed their comprehension and perceptions of dietary choices and lifestyles. The findings so far have been a fascinating glimpse into the effectiveness of current health promotions.

“One thing that's come out in my study is that the two and five message has actually been very successful to increase the knowledge of young people. Ther know that they should have two pieces of fruit and five servings of veggies every day. The problem I'm finding with the research is that they actually can't translate that into diet choices. So particularly for veggies, it's hard because they don't know what a serve looks like.”

Without Googling it, what does a serve of peas look like? What about broccoli? Carrots? Even when you do Google it, there’s plenty of conflicting messaging regarding what a serve is.

Another finding was in the use of positive and negative tone in the messaging itself. The advert the young adults watch in the chip shop has a message founded in negativity. It essentially says ‘if you drink soft drinks, you will get toxic fat around your vital organs, and you will die a premature death’. It almost comes across as a threat, and anyone who has been around young adults knows that threats and orders are rarely listened to, let alone acted on.

“We need to actually embed things in the school program, for example, that talk about not so much just the health risks associated with not eating healthy food, we need to be talking about the benefits of eating healthy food, and how it will make you feel,” Michelle says.

But do young people make decisions based on how it will make them feel? Or do they instead make decisions based on how it will make them look?

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The rise of social media is a convoluted period of recent history, and yet it is still so brand new to us. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, many platforms exist for people to cultivate followings, share memes with friends, find a date, or just endlessly scroll.

We live in a world that has one foot in the analogue and one in the digital. So we spend much of our time engaging with a system of apps and websites that are specifically designed to trick, entice, and hold onto our most precious resource—our time.

Those who have found fame in the digital world have extraordinary power and influence, which they can leverage for brand deals and advertising income. It’s a new profession, but one that the younger generation have taken to as digital natives. With 95% of teens having access to a smartphone, and 45% saying they are online 'almost constantly', social media influencers probably have more control over young people’s lives than anyone else.

But Michelle sees the pitfalls in this new world order.

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What I found really frustrating was that most of the students are well-educated but they don't look at the credibility of the people posting this information. It just didn't seem to really matter as long as the person looks good. They were prepared to just follow the advice of a random person without questioning what that person is selling or researching what the long-term risk of eating that way or avoiding certain foods from their diet could be.

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Just scrolling through the trending Instagram pictures, it is easy to see the problem. Beautiful women in bikinis and muscle-bound men saturate the feed, all drinking green smoothies or herbal tea and professing their love for the latest brand to have contacted them with a free sample. The ideal body image barrage that young people endure daily is causing serious mental health issues.

“We’ve got an entire generation of people eating and choosing foods to help them look a certain way, and when they work hard and try to achieve these unrealistic standards, they can’t do it and become depressed,” Michelle says.

“And that came out with the focus groups. The young people said, ‘I'm not going to change my diet unless I can see my body changing’”.

So while the teenagers ignore the public health announcement on the chip shop television, are they staring down into their screens and comparing themselves to unattainable beauty standards? Are they wondering whether they should try out the new fad diet everyone is talking about on YouTube just because one influencer claimed she lost weight as soon as she started it? Are they comparing their own behind the scenes to another’s highlight reel and becoming depressed?

“They’ve got access 24/7,” Michelle says, “because this age group--they've all got smartphones--they've all got access all the time to Instagram and Facebook.

“So that’s one recommendation from the study. How can we look at using these platforms to balance out some of those messages that young people are hearing? How can we try to advocate for more of a more realistic body size and shape, rather than just the idealised version?”

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Michelle’s study contributes to a growing body of research in this space. The exciting thing about research like this is the practical application opportunities. This is all theoretical for now, but if we can launch new policies and campaigns that target emerging adults with important information, there is potential for tangible, real-world benefits.

Interestingly though, Michelle found that throughout her study the more people knew about healthy eating choices and nutrition, the more likely they were to experience disordered or problematic eating.

“At first I thought, well, why would that be?” Michelle asks, “Because knowledge should be something that improves health. But I think what's happening is that they're feeling bad about what they're eating, because they know they shouldn't be eating it.”

The students in Michelle’s study may have been going to McDonalds for lunch and ordering a large Big Mac meal, but they also knew exactly how bad for them their lunchtime splurge would be. This led to a difficult dissonance for the students to cope with, stemming from messaging that seemed confused in the way it imparted information.

“This is why I think we need to change the focus of how we get the message across to people, because we've sort of framed it by saying ‘If you don't eat these good foods, you will end up with diabetes, you will end up fat.’ There's a lot of guilt underlying these messages. I think we need to try to focus more on positive messages. What should we be doing? How am I going to feel if I eat this food? I’ll be stronger. I'll be more alert. I'll be able to concentrate on my study more. I’ll sleep better.

“I'm making that same recommendation over and over that we just need to think about this positively and promote it as a positive short term action. Explaining how it will change your life now, not in 30 years’ time, because young people have said clearly in the focus groups that they're not interested in 30 years from now, they'll deal with that when it comes.

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But right now, they just want to look good, they want to attract people, they want to get out there and live their life.

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The health promotion advert on the television attempts to scare people into making healthy lifestyle choices. The young adults either ignore it or laugh it off. They pick up their fish and chips and eat, blissfully unaware of the long-term effects occurring inside their bodies, and later drink an expensive smoothie because it’s chock full of ‘superfoods’.

An alternate future sees the young adults at home, cooking a fresh, healthy meal with their friends. They are trying out a recipe they saw on an Instagram influencer’s profile. It looks and tastes delicious. They are eating well because it benefits them, not because they are trying to look good.

Social media doesn’t have to be a negative influence in emerging adult’s lives. Michelle’s research shows what the power of these platforms could be for the future health of the younger generations in our society, just so long as they are used responsibly and informed by research like Michelle’s.

Find out more about research at Notre Dame here.


Media Contact: Breyon Gibbs : +61 8 9433 0569 | breyon.gibbs@nd.edu.au