Transitioning to a new environment, as many college freshmen do, can increase feelings of loneliness, and feelings of loneliness in college students have increased dramatically in the past decade, according to the National Assessment of College Health. Additionally, a 2021 survey reported that 44% of US college students described their weight as more than normal, meaning in the overweight or obese category. Although loneliness has been linked to unhealthy weight and physical inactivity, there is a lack of research on dietary behaviors in college students and the role it may play in obesity in college students.
Using data from the Mason: Health Starts Here cohort study, Master of Nutrition student Li Jiang found that loneliness was linked to altered diet quality and physical inactivity. The research was conducted as part of Jiang’s master’s thesis, and Mason’s Department of Food and Nutrition Studies Chair Lawrence J. Cheskin, Associate Professor Lilian de Jonge, former faculty member Cara Frankenfeld and the former Ziaul H. Rana Postdoctoral Fellow also contributed to the project.
“Our study supports the potential need for further research to understand unhealthy dietary behavior and physical activity that may be related to loneliness, an emotion that plagues many college students,” Jiang says.
Sedentary (19.2%) and little active (53.8%) behaviors were more frequent in students who reported a lot of loneliness (score range of 4-6 and 7-9) than those who reported little loneliness (score of 10-12). The students who reported more loneliness had higher-fat diets than the students who reported less loneliness.
“Interventions to reduce loneliness may have a positive health-promoting effect in this population. These data go hand in hand with other initial findings from the Health Starts Here study that college students do not adhere to healthy dietary guidelines or do not perform enough physical activity,” said Cheskin, who has an MD.
The study is a cross-sectional study that analyzed baseline data collected in the first wave of Mason: Health Start Here in 2019, and was funded by George Mason University’s Institute for Biohealth Innovation.
“Loneliness is associated with unhealthy dietary behaviors and physical inactivity among US college students,” was published in the November 2022 journal American University Health Journal.
Mason: Health Starts Here is the first transdisciplinary student cohort study of its kind to understand and improve the health and well-being of college students. This research will follow a broad sample of young adults, specifically Mason students, over time to capture the diversity of their college experiences and how it affects their health and well-being.