University Students’ Eating Behaviours: Implications for the Social Cognitive Theory

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Cox, Victoria
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Mount Saint Vincent University
University students have long been known to have poor dietary habits, consuming a diet low in vegetables and fruit, but high in high fat and snack foods. Theoretically based dietary interventions can be effective in altering these behaviours, however theories such as the Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) are often deemed as too broad to be applied to a specific population, requiring testing and refinement. As such, this thesis used a conceptual model of the SCT to assess the effectiveness of social-cognitive constructs in explaining the dietary outcomes of a sample of university students. This quantitative research utilized secondary data from the Student Meal Study, in which 188 university students were surveyed on their eating habits, out of which social cognitive constructs were developed, and their dietary intake, as per Canada’s food guide. Eight hypotheses were tested by inserting the social-cognitive constructs into a conceptual model of the SCT, and analyzing the model using Partial Least Squares regression per each food group of interest. The following relationships, pertaining to social-cognitive constructs leading to a dietary outcome of interest, were found to be statistically significant at the 0.05 level of significance: i) Self-Efficacy leading to an increased intake of Fruits and Vegetables; Grains; Meat and Alternatives; Milk and Alternatives; and Foods to Limit; ii) Situation leading to an increased intake of Fruits and Vegetables; Grains; Meat and Alternatives; Milk and Alternatives; and Foods to Limit and; iii) Behavioural Strategies leading to an increased intake of Fruits and Vegetables and; Grains. Regarding constructs that do not lead to dietary outcomes, the following relationships were found to be statistically significant: i) Self-Efficacy leading to increased Behavioural Strategies; ii) Self-Efficacy as leading to Outcome Expectancies and; iii) Situation as leading to increased Self-Efficacy. The thesis resulted in a refined conceptual model of the SCT specific to the target population, and supports the appropriateness of using the SCT as a framework for developing dietary interventions for university students. Practical implications focus on the development of nutrition interventions as guided by the SCT that simultaneously focus on enhancing students’ self-efficacy for healthy eating as pertaining to all food groups, while increasing their access to healthy food and decreasing availability of foods to limit, and enhancing their behavioral skills for preparing certain foods, specifically vegetables and fruits and grain products.
dietary habits , social cognitive theory , social-cognitive constructs , partial least squares