Jeopardizing Future: College Students’ Dietary Patterns and Corresponding Health Concerns

Unhealthy eating habits among college students (Zhang 2018)

After only gaining a few pounds over the past month, you may be tempted to eat more fast food while avoiding vegetables, but in doing so, you would be jeopardizing your future health. The typical college-aged student is in an important stage of physical and mental development. The body is still physically growing, yet students are just beginning to face the challenges associated with their newfound, collegiate independence. Factors ranging from academic stress, the cost of healthy food, and limited peer support lead to students making poor dietary choices and consuming calorically-dense, high-fat foods on a regular basis (Kelly, 2013). This leads to increased risks of obesity as well as long-term health issues including cardiovascular diseases and brain impairment. 

According to Brevard and Ricketts, college students tend to consume imbalanced, lipid-oriented diets. On average, fat contributes to 34-46% of a college student’s calorie intake, which is approximately 30% higher than the USDA recommend 20-35% (Brevard & Ricketts, 1996). The cross-sectional research conducted by Gonzales, Laurent, and Johnson suggest that undergraduate students with unlimited access plans and point plans generally consume more fatty foods than students without meal plans (2017). The root cause of the problem is the prevalence of fast food in university cafeterias, indicating the impact of environment on student food choice. Gonzales and his colleagues also concluded that all undergraduate students, no matter their meal plan status, significantly exceeded the amount of added sugar recommended by the American Heart Association (2017, P324). To make matters worse, the majority of college students lacked sufficient fruit and vegetable intake. Only 4.8% of all college students met the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and a mere 31.8% consumed more than 2 servings (American College Health Association, 2011). 

Multiple factors ranging from metabolism to activity level jointly determine body weight. Yet studies have found that dietary behaviors alone is a good predictor for obesity in college students. For example, low fruit consumption is negatively correlated with human Body Mass Index (BMI) (Lin & Morrison, 2002). As Huang discovered from his survey, “a high percentage of our surveyed students were overweight and engaged in … low fruit and vegetable intake and low fiber intake” (Huang, 2003, P85). In addition, West and York conclude that fat-oriented diets lead to higher risks of obesity (1998). Through experimentation with model mammals ranging from monkeys, dogs, pigs, hamsters, squirrels, rats, and mice, they concluded that fat storage is maximized in organisms with low-fat content in their natural diets. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense when you’re staving off hibernation or surviving a famine. But for the average college student, this unfortunately means that even a low calorie fatty diet is more likely to lead to obesity than a high calorie low-fat diet. 

Associations between child and adolescent overweight and obesity and premature mortality in adulthood (Reilly & Kelly, 2010)

Since college students are still developing, improper dietary behaviors can lead to severe long-term health concerns. Humans experience functional neurogenesis in the hippocampus through late adolescence and early adulthood, characterized by the growth of neurons from neural stem cells (van Praag et al 2002). The consumption of a “Western” diet by college students — hallmarks being the high fat content and low vegetable intake — can potentially result in decreased visual-spatial learning and memory capabilities due to altered hypothalamus functions (Hueston, 2017). These changes are irreversible, and impairment in this stage of life could very well last a lifetime. Studies have also shown that an increase in body mass for women older than 18 raises the risk of coronary heart disease later in life (Willett, 1995, P1). Through a prospective cohort study that lasted 14 years, they concluded that even modest weight gain within normal BMI range could lead to a higher risk of fatal CHD or nonfatal myocardial infarction. Moreover, numerous researchers have drawn associations between high adolescent BMI and premature mortalities (figure 1). The consequences of imbalance diets are far more severe than simply gaining weight.

For newly independent young adults, maintaining healthy dietary choices is crucial for their future. Committing to healthier dietary habits can prove challenging in the beginning, but with a bit of time and persistence, positive long-term differences can be made. Adding a favorite fruit to your plate every meal should be a treat rather than a pain. Weight loss doesn’t have to mean suffering from hunger, when a low carbohydrate diet can effectively reduce BMI without increasing cardiovascular risks (Sondike et al 2003). It is important to remember that starting with small steps will eventually compound into a much larger investment for the future.

USDA tips on healthy eating habits (Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, 2018)

Edited by Jin Yoo


American College Health Association. (2011). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2010. 1-19

Brevard, P. B., & Ricketts, C. D. (1996). Residence of College Students Affects Dietary Intake, Physical Activity, and Serum Lipid Levels. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 96(1), 35-38. doi:10.1016/s0002-8223(96)00011-9

Brevard, Patricia B., and Crystal D. Ricketts. “Residence of College Students Affects Dietary Intake, Physical Activity, and Serum Lipid Levels.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 96, no. 1, 1996, pp. 35–38., doi:10.1016/s0002-8223(96)00011-9.

Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. (2018). MPMW Tipsheet No. 14. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from

Gavin, M. L. (Ed.). (2018). MyPlate Food Guide (for Teens). Retrieved from 

Gonzales, R., Laurent, J. S., & Johnson, R. K. (2017). Relationship Between Meal Plan, Dietary Intake, Body Mass Index, and Appetitive Responsiveness in College Students. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 31(3), 320-326. doi:10.1016/j.pedhc.2016.10.002

Hueston, C. M., Cryan, J. F., & Nolan, Y. M. (2017). Stress and adolescent hippocampal neurogenesis: diet and exercise as cognitive modulators. Translational Psychiatry, 7(4), e1081. doi:10.1038/tp.2017.48

Huang, T. T.-K., Harris, K. J., Lee, R. E., Nazir, N., Born, W., & Kaur, H. (2003). Assessing Overweight, Obesity, Diet, and Physical Activity in College Students. Journal of American College Health, 52(2), 83–86. doi:10.1080/07448480309595728

Kelly, Nichole R., et al. (2013). “Systematic Review of Dietary Interventions With College Students: Directions for Future Research and Practice.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, vol. 45, no. 4, 2013, pp. 304–313., doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2012.10.012.

Lin, B. H., & Morrison, R. M. (2002). Higher fruit consumption linked with lower body mass index. Food Review/National Food Review, 25(1482-2016-121538), 28-32.

Reilly, J. J., & Kelly, J. (2010). Long-term impact of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence on morbidity and premature mortality in adulthood: Systematic review. International Journal of Obesity, 35(7), 891-898. doi:10.1038/ijo.2010.222

Sondike, S., Copperman, N., & Jacobsen, M. (2003). Effects of a low carbohydrate diet on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors in overweight adolescents. ACC Current Journal Review, 12(5), 87. doi:10.1016/j.accreview.2003.08.029 

van Praag, H., Schinder, A. F., Christie, B. R., Toni, N., Palmer, T. D., & Gage, F. H. (2002). Functional neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Nature, 415(6875), 1030.

West, D. B., & York, B. (1998). Dietary fat, genetic predisposition, and obesity: Lessons from animal models. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67(3). doi:10.1093/ajcn/67.3.505s 

Willett, W. C. (1995). Weight, Weight Change, and Coronary Heart Disease in Women. JAMA, 273(6), 461. doi:10.1001/jama.1995.03520300035033

Zhang, Zimeng. (2018) “Unhealthy Eating Habits among College Students.” Tutors Field Blog, 30 Mar. 2018,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.