Theses Doctoral

East Asian international students’ perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to U.S food and the food environment

Lee, Jong Min

In the United States, there are increasing numbers of East Asian international students who are enrolled in higher education institutions. These students often face academic and social environment challenges. In addition to these challenges, they face problems and needs derived from the different food environment. A few studies have explored food consumption patterns, health status, and barriers to eating healthfully among international students. However, none of the studies has examined how their current consumption and consumption change are related to their perceptions and attitudes toward the U.S. food environment, as well as considerations of the sustainability and safety of the food system and environmental concerns in their food choices.
Therefore, this study describes East Asian international students’ degrees of acculturation, cooking, and eating out; current processed food and whole food consumption; change in processed food and whole food consumption since coming to the U.S. (eat less, eat similar amount as home country or eat more); reasons for the change in each food category and as a whole; attitudes toward U.S. food system (when they make food choices in the U.S., how important it is for them to choose based on food system factors among other factors); and perceptions of the U.S. food environment (what they think of the U.S. food environment).
The study was a cross-sectional study, using a survey developed from literature reviews and several in-depth semi structured interviews. After assessments of the validation and reliability of the instrument, the survey was transferred into an online survey format. The online-survey was given at four selected campuses including two universities in New York City (private and public) and two universities in New York State (private and public) through email invitations and recruitment using flyers posted around campus. The survey was conducted from April to October of 2016. The study’s participants were East Asian international students, both female and male, who had come to the U.S. to study; their ages ranged from 18 to 35, and included undergraduate and graduate students. The participants were from the following countries or regions: Mainland China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. However, students who were participating in mandatory meal plans and students who had attended high-school in the U.S. or other Western countries before enrolling in university were excluded.
The results show that in terms of acculturation, participants’ (n=511) interpersonal and dietary factors were closer to Asian than American. They cooked and ate out more frequently in the U.S. compared to when they were in their home countries. They spent more money on eating out than grocery shopping on a weekly basis. After coming to the U.S., they ate/drank more processed food, water, raw vegetables, meat, dairy, and other Asian foods, and eat less foods from their home countries and cooked vegetables. The main reasons for the change in these food consumption were due to their concerns about health, weight, availability, convenience, taste, and price. The least used reasons for the change in food consumption by participants were concerns about food system sustainability factors (pollution, energy or water use, environment, worker conditions). These reasons were consistent with their attitudes toward the U.S. food system in that they tended to have favorable attitudes toward using nutrition, convenience, and price in their food choices and to have less favorable attitudes towards basing on their food choices on food system sustainability, food safety, and environmental concern factors. However, when they did have favorable attitudes toward environmental concerns and food safety, they tended to eat more whole foods. When participants perceived that there was better food quality and more availability in the U.S., they tended to eat more whole foods upon coming to the U.S. Factors that surprised them about with U.S. food environment were mainly because of the differences in food culture and the food system.
This study is the first to examine the food intake of Asian international students in terms of processed and whole food categories, and the first to examine students’ food choice motivations, attitudes, and perceptions in terms of food system sustainability and environmental considerations. A strength of the study is its large sample size. A limitation is that there was no control group of U.S. students entering college for the first time. Based on the results of the study, future research should focus on conducting qualitative studies to better understand nuances in international students’ food choice concerns and motivations that were not captured in a survey as well as employing a comparison group in the research design. In terms of practice, nutrition education is clearly needed for this population in order to assist students in adjusting to the new U.S. food environment and to help them understand how the US food system works. Nutrition education can also provide information on the globalization of the U.S. food system that will assist students to understand how and why the food system is changing in their home countries. Effort may also be made to help them bring back environment friendly practices (e.g. eating local food, farmers markets) to their home countries, so that they may educate their fellow citizens, and contribute, where appropriate, to food policy discussions within their home countries.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Lee_columbia_0054D_13981.pdf Lee_columbia_0054D_13981.pdf application/pdf 3.86 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Behavioral Nutrition
Thesis Advisors
Contento, Isobel
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 6, 2017