Dietary changes and its psychosocial moderators during the university examination period

  • Nathalie MichelsEmail author
  • Tsun Man
  • Billie Vinck
  • Laura Verbeyst
Original Contribution



Stress is thought to stimulate unhealthy dietary choices towards fat and sweet foods. Nevertheless, individual vulnerabilities might exist depending on psychological factors. We wanted to check dietary change during examination stress via a longitudinal study, while identifying risk groups via moderation by eating behavior (emotional/external/restrained), food choice motive, taste preference, reward/punishment sensitivity, impulsivity, coping strategies, sedentary behavior, social support, living in a student home and being a first-year student.


Before and after the examination period January 2017, 232 Flemish students completed online questionnaires on diet (food frequency questionnaire with diet quality index), the above mentioned psychological factors, perceived exam stress and some demographics.


During the examination period, diet quality decreased: lower general diet quality index, lower fruit and vegetables intake, higher fast food intake and more difficulties to eat healthy. Based on significant time moderation, emotional eaters, external eaters, sweet/fat lovers, those with health as food choice motive, sensitive to reward or punishment, highly sedentary, non-first-year students and those with high stress reports were at higher risk for exam-induced diet deteriorations (partial η2: 017–0.071; highest effects for health as food choice motive and external eating). Most tested variables were also related to baseline dietary intake which was of rather low quality.


The overall stress-diet hypothesis was confirmed as students were vulnerable to diet deterioration during examination periods and high-risk groups were identified. Prevention strategies should integrate psychological and lifestyle aspects: stress management, nutritional education with techniques for self-effectiveness, awareness of eating-without-hunger and a health stimulating environment.


Stress Students Moderation Snack Diet quality Emotional eating 



No funding was received for this study. Nathalie Michels is funded by FWO (Research Foundation-Flanders).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

394_2019_1906_MOESM1_ESM.docx (12 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 12 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health SciencesGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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