Skyrocketing Loneliness Among College Students: Connection to Unhealthy Habits Revealed

Lonely Sad Woman Looking Out Window

In a study of 264 college students, those who reported higher levels of loneliness also had a higher fat diet and were more likely to engage in sedentary and low physical activity behaviors compared to those who reported lower levels of loneliness.

College students who reported a higher level of loneliness also reported engaging in more sedentary behavior and having lower levels of physical activity.

Moving to a new environment, a common experience for college freshmen can lead to heightened feelings of loneliness. The National College Health Assessment reports that feelings of loneliness among college students have skyrocketed in the past decade.

Furthermore, a 2021 survey indicated that 44% of U.S. college students considered themselves to be overweight or obese. While loneliness has been associated with unhealthy weight and a lack of physical activity, there is a lack of research on the dietary habits of college students and their impact on obesity among this population.

With data from the Mason: Health Starts Here cohort study, Master of Nutrition alum Li Jiang found that loneliness was related to altered diet quality and physical inactivity. The research was done as part of Jiang’s master’s thesis, and Mason Nutrition and Food Studies Department Chair Lawrence J. Cheskin, Associate Professor Lilian de Jonge, former faculty member Cara Frankenfeld, and former postdoctoral fellow Ziaul H. Rana also contributed to the project.

“Our study supports a potential need for further research in understanding unhealthful dietary behavior and physical activity which may be related to loneliness, an emotion that impacts many college students,” says Jiang.

Sedentary (19.2%) and low active (53.8%) behaviors were more frequent in students reporting high loneliness (score ranges of 4–6 and 7–9) than those reporting low loneliness (score of 10-12). Students reporting more loneliness had higher fat diets than students reporting less loneliness.

“Interventions to reduce loneliness may have a positive effect on health promotion in this population. This data goes along with other initial findings from the Health Starts Here study that college students are not meeting healthy dietary guidelines or getting enough physical activity,” said Cheskin, who has an MD.

Reference: “Loneliness is associated with unhealthful dietary behaviors and physical inactivity among US college students” by Li Jiang, MS, Lawrence J. Cheskin, MD, Cara L. Frankenfeld, Ph.D., Ziaul H. Rana, Ph.D. and Lilian de Jonge, Ph.D., 17 November 2022, Journal of American College Health.
DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2022.2141060

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.

Mason: Health Starts Here is a first-of-its-kind transdisciplinary student cohort study to understand and improve the health and well-being of university students. This research will follow a broad sample of young adults, specifically Mason students, over time to capture the diversity of their experiences in college and how it affects their health and well-being.

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