Background: College or university is a critical period regarding unhealthy changes in eating behaviours in students. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore which factors influence Belgian (European) university students' eating behaviour, using a qualitative research design. Furthermore, we aimed to collect ideas and recommendations in order to facilitate the development of effective and tailored intervention programs aiming to improve healthy eating behaviours in university students.
Methods: Using a semi-structured question guide, five focus group discussions have been conducted consisting of 14 male and 21 female university students from a variety of study disciplines, with a mean age of 20.6 ± 1.7 yrs. Using Nvivo9, an inductive thematic approach was used for data analysis.
Results: After the transition from secondary school to university, when independency increases, students are continuously challenged to make healthful food choices. Students reported to be influenced by individual factors (e.g. taste preferences, self-discipline, time and convenience), their social networks (e.g. (lack of) parental control, friends and peers), physical environment (e.g. availability and accessibility, appeal and prices of food products), and macro environment (e.g. media and advertising). Furthermore, the relationships between determinants and university students' eating behaviour seemed to be moderated by university characteristics, such as residency, student societies, university lifestyle and exams. Recommendations for university administrators and researchers include providing information and advice to enhance healthy food choices and preparation (e.g. via social media), enhancing self-discipline and self-control, developing time management skills, enhancing social support, and modifying the subjective as well as the objective campus food environment by e.g. making healthy foods price-beneficial and by providing vending machines with more healthy products.
Conclusions: This is the first European study examining perceived determinants of eating behaviour in university students and collecting ideas and recommendations for healthy eating interventions in a university specific setting. University characteristics (residency, exams, etc.) influence the relationships between individual as well as social environmental determinants and university students' eating behaviour, and should therefore be taken into account when designing effective and tailored multilevel intervention programs aiming to improve healthy eating behaviours in university students.