Food Environment Interventions to Improve the Dietary Behavior of Young Adults in Tertiary Education Settings: A Systematic Literature Review

Published:August 11, 2015DOI:


      The current obesity-promoting food environment, typified by highly accessible unhealthy foods and drinks, may lead to an increased risk of chronic disease, particularly within young adults. A number of university-based intervention trials have been conducted in the United States and Europe to improve the food environment in this setting. However, there are no systematic reviews focusing on these interventions conducted exclusively in tertiary education settings. Our objective was to conduct a systematic literature review evaluating food environment interventions targeting dietary behavior in young adults in college and university settings. Eight databases were searched for randomized controlled trials, pre- and postintervention studies, quasiexperimental studies, cross-sectional studies, and other nonexperimental studies from 1998 to December 2014 that were conducted in tertiary education settings (ie, colleges and universities). Studies that evaluated a food environment intervention and reported healthier food choices, reductions in unhealthy food choices, nutrition knowledge, and/or food and drink sales as primary outcomes were included. Fifteen studies of high (n=5), medium (n=7), and poor quality (n=3) met the inclusion criteria, 13 of which showed positive improvements in outcome measures. Information relating to healthy foods through signage and nutrition labels (n=10) showed improvements in outcomes of interest. Increasing the availability of healthy foods (n=1) and decreasing the portion size of unhealthy foods (n=2) improved dietary intake. Price incentives and increased availability of healthy foods combined with nutrition information to increase purchases of healthy foods (n=2) were identified as having a positive effect on nutrition-related outcomes. Potentially useful interventions in tertiary education settings were nutrition messages/nutrient labeling, providing healthy options, and portion size control of unhealthy foods. Price decreases for and the increased availability of healthy options combined with nutrition information resulted in improvements in dietary habits. Additional research comparing the long-term effectiveness of environmental and combinations of environmental interventions on improving health outcomes is warranted.


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      R. Roy is a dietitian/nutritionist and PhD candidate, School of Molecular Bioscience, Charles Perkins Centre, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.


      A. Rangan is a senior lecturer in dietetics, School of Molecular Bioscience, Charles Perkins Centre, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.


      M. Allman-Farinelli is a professor of dietetics, School of Molecular Bioscience, Charles Perkins Centre, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.


      B. Kelly is a senior lecturer in public health, School of Health and Society, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia.