Background

Transitioning to college is a vulnerable period that allows for the emergence of food insecurity and its compensatory eating behaviors. These behaviors are hypothesized to promote dependence on inexpensive and energy-dense foods, increasing the risk of obesity. Although this seemingly paradoxical relationship between obesity and food insecurity has been documented in previous literature among U.S. households, less is known about this issue among college students. The present study aimed to examine the association of food insecurity with dietary and anthropometric measures of students from eight universities in the United States (n= 683).

Methods

Participants completed the USDA Adult Food Security Survey and the NCI Dietary Screener Questionnaire and had their weight, height, and waist circumference measured by trained researchers at the end of their second academic year (April 2017).

Results

Approximately, one-quarter (25.4%) of the students were food insecure (FI). Compared to food secure (FS) students, FI students had significantly higher BMI (25.8 ± 0.4 vs. 24.2 ± 0.2kg/m2, p < 0.001), waist circumference (81.4 ± 1.0 vs. 78.6 ± 0.5cm, p = 0.01), intake of sugar from sugar-sweetened beverages (6.4 ± 0.5 vs. 4.5 ± 0.2 tsp/d, p < 0.001), and total added sugars (14.0 ± 0.5 vs. 12.3 ± 0.3 tsp/d, p = 0.003) and significantly lower intake of fruits and vegetables (1.8 ± 0.05 vs. 2.2 ± 0.03 CE/d, p= 0.02). Controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, FI students, had significantly higher odds of having a BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2 (OR= 3.23, 95% CI: 1.81 – 5.76), and consuming ≥ 16 tsp/d of added sugars (OR= 1.97, 95% CI: 1.29 – 3.00) than FS students. Conversely, FI students had lower odds of consuming ≥ 2 CE/d of fruits and vegetables compared to their counterparts (OR= 0.69, 95% CI: 0.47 – 1.00).

Conclusions

Food insecurity is highly prevalent and may compromise students’ health and diet. Initiatives are needed to improve the food and nutrition security of U.S. college students.