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Vocational school students want to eat healthier, but they lack the tools

Some of the Danish vocational school students want to eat healthier, but they lack knowledge and skills in relation to food - so-called “food literacy” - to reach the goal. This is one of the conclusions in a new study from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University.

[Translate to English:] Foto: Colourbox

How are Danish vocational school students' food-related skills related to their "healthy" and "unhealthy" eating habits? Researchers from the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University have investigated this, and the results can be read in a new DCA report.

The report is the fourth in a series of studies that shed light on vocational school students' eating habits - and barriers and opportunities to pull them in a healthier direction.

As something new, the study focuses on "food literacy" - a concept that includes knowledge about nutrition, food-related skills, self-confidence and surrounding factors. This is done based on a questionnaire survey and a series of personal interviews.

"Food literacy" can help to understand eating habits

The nationwide questionnaire survey has been conducted at both high schools and vocational schools to assess any differences between the two, and the conclusion is clear:

- The vocational school students eat less healthy than the high school students do, and they lag behind when it comes to food-related skills and knowledge. The male students, in particular, stand out negatively in the statistics, confirming previous studies. The good news is that there is potential for change among vocational school students, says Amanda Videbæk Laasholdt, who is a Research Assistant at the MAPP Centre and one of the researchers behind the study, and continues:

- We have investigated how knowledge relates to behavior and the status of vocational school students in relation to different stages of change. We work with the rejection stage, the contemplation stage, the action stage and the maintenance stage. The stages describe how willing an individual is to change behavior. Last year's survey concluded that just over a quarter of vocational school students were in the contemplation stage - and thus were interested in starting to eat healthier - and this is the result that we have had confirmed and worked on this year. For what is it that can help or prevent students from moving from one stage to the next?

In the new study, the researchers have concluded that "food literacy" may be part of the explanation:

- We have asked several questions to uncover students' knowledge about food and health. Here we can see that the vocational school students in the maintenance stage have scored significantly higher on the knowledge questions than those who indicated that they were in the contemplation stage or the rejection stage, and this could thus indicate that there was a connection between lack of knowledge and lack of ability to move to the next behavioral stage, says Amanda Videbæk Laasholdt, and adds:

- The students also answered some questions about their eating habits. To our surprise, there was no statistical correlation between "food literacy" and unhealthy eating habits, including eating candy, salty snacks, junk food and sugary drinks. However, we saw that those who had a healthy intake of fruits and vegetables scored high on several of the food literacy goals; they were good at planning their meals, good at cooking, and it was easy for them to find information about healthy food.

A challenge to stand on your own feet

The researchers have worked with the results from the questionnaire survey in a series of in-depth interviews with vocational school students who, according to their statements, were either in the contemplation or action stage - i.e. they reportedly had recently begun to eat healthy or had plans to do so. The purpose of this part of the study was to elaborate on the results from the quantitative part with a focus on the challenges associated with moving away from home.

- Previous studies show that it is difficult for young people, who have just moved away from home, to learn and apply skills related to “food literacy”. This is confirmed by our study. The students mentioned easy solutions, such as fast food and ready meals, supplemented with quite a few snacks, cake, etc. However, some of our participants said that they had "become wiser" after a while, when they experienced that their unhealthy habits were not durable, either for economic reasons or due to weight gain. Therefore, several had started cooking, but the food typically lacked variation, and the dishes were repeated often. We found that it was difficult for the majority of students to live up to their intentions of eating healthy, says Amanda Videbæk Laasholdt, and concludes:


- Although several of the young people interviewed were motivated to improve their eating habits, it proved difficult. Not all young people were aware that their knowledge and skills in relation to food and meals – i.e. their "food literacy" - stood in the way of healthier eating habits. Therefore, we believe that a greater focus on young people's "food literacy" could contribute to improving their eating habits. However, it is important to emphasize that improved eating habits are not just about knowledge and skills, but also about support from the surroundings as well as the actual opportunities for young people to make healthy food choices in everyday life. 

Project facts

This report was commissioned by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration as part of the “Framework Agreement between the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark and Aarhus University on the provision of research-based policy support 2018-2021”. The report can be downloaded here.

 MAPP Centre, Department of Management, Aarhus University


Amanda Videbæk Laasholdt, Research Assistant, MAPP Centre, Department of Management, avl@mgmt.au.dk, phone: +45 87164812