Food and Mental Health: Relationship Between Food and Perceived Stress and Depressive Symptoms Among University Students in the United Kingdom

Cent Eur J Public Health. 2014 Jun;22(2):90-7. doi: 10.21101/cejph.a3941.


Aims: The current study assessed, by university and sex, the association between nutritional behaviour (twelve independent variables), and stress and depressive symptoms (dependent variables) in a sample from three UK countries.

Methods: A cross-sectional survey was undertaken among undergraduates enrolled across seven universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (N = 3,706). Self-administered questionnaires included a 12-item food frequency questionnaire, Cohen's Perceived Stress Scale and modified Beck Depression Inventory. Sex and university comparisons were undertaken. Univariable and multivariable regression analyses were computed for each of the two outcomes--perceived stress and depressive symptoms.

Results: The frequencies of consuming of the various food groups differed by university and sex, as did depressive symptoms and perceived stress. Multivariable regression analyses indicated that consuming 'unhealthy' foods (e.g. sweets, cookies, snacks, fast food) was significantly positively associated with perceived stress (females only) and depressive symptoms (both males and females). Conversely, consuming 'healthy' foods (e.g. fresh fruits, salads, cooked vegetables) was significantly negatively associated with perceived stress and depressive symptoms scores for both sexes. There was significant negative association between consuming fish/sea food and depressive symptoms among males only. For males and for females, consuming lemonade/soft drinks, meat/sausage products, dairy/dairy products, and cereal/cereal products were not associated with either perceived stress or depressive symptoms.

Conclusions: The associations between consuming 'unhealthy' foods and higher depressive symptoms and perceived stress among male and female students as well as the associations between consuming 'healthy' foods and lower depressive symptoms and perceived stress among male and female students in three UK countries suggest that interventions to reduce depressive symptoms and stress among students could also result in the consumption of healthier foods and/or vice versa.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / epidemiology*
  • Diet*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Perception
  • Sex Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology*
  • Students / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United Kingdom
  • Universities*
  • Young Adult