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Food for thought: is poor diet affecting students' stress levels?

Study, socialise, work and repeat – life of a university student. When your day is packed with classes, assignments, not to mention a social life and maybe a job, who has time for healthy eating? But here’s some food for thought: eating regularly and choosing the right healthy foods means having more mental and physical energy, feeling good about yourself and enjoying a healthy lifestyle. 

University students seeking new ways to overcome challenges may have to look no further than the breakfast table. New research from the University of Newcastle suggests a healthy diet is associated with lower risk of psychological distress and increased resilience (the ability to recover from stress).

Presented at the Dietitians Association of Australia 36th National Conference on the Gold Coast in August, this research reveals a connection between mental health and common dietary habits of Australian university students.

Researcher and Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) Dr Amanda Patterson found more than a third (37%) of the 2710 students surveyed reported high or very high risk of psychological distress, and 30% reported having low resilience. This was associated with lower fruit and vegetable intakes, lower frequency of breakfast consumption and higher consumption of soft drinks and takeaway foods.

“In general, an unhealthy diet has been consistently linked with poorer mental health. However, the association between lower risk of psychological distress and higher resilience with healthier food choices was an interesting discovery. Students reporting better mental health had higher fruit and vegetable consumption, were more likely to start their day with breakfast and consumed soft drinks and takeaway foods less frequently,” said Dr Patterson.

Previous research has uncovered that university students are under more stress than their peers not currently studying. This stress has also been associated with unhealthy lifestyle behaviours including poor diet and inadequate exercise, smoking and increased alcohol consumption.

“University is often a time of change for students, and many experience a range of psychological stressors, stemming from academic, social, financial and economic factors. For many young students, adult eating behaviours are also developed during this time, influencing their life-long health,” said Dr Patterson.

Researchers are keen to understand more about the relationship between diet and psychological distress in students.

“These findings suggest food and nutrition habits may have the power to positively impact mental health among students – and, with further exploration could help to inform university health education programs.”