College students’ weighty choices, lack of healthy habits, bring obesity to forefront

Sydney Carter, MCT

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Control over their life choices is part of the college experience for students. But that authority is not without cost: Schedules are jammed and in-flux; exercise, homework and friends all compete for time. Parents aren’t around to clean up, nag about homework and grades, or cook nutritious meals.

Faced with overwhelming choices, college students often end up gaining extra pounds. Moreover, at a time when obesity among Americans is a national epidemic, the college generation often is overlooked.

The percent of overweight and obese American college students increased from 27.4 percent in Fall 2006 to 29.2 percent in Fall 2011, according to the American College Health Association. The organization based its findings on body mass index (BMI), which is calculated from an individual’s self-reported height and weight, and is a standard indicator of obesity. A BMI in the range of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, while a BMI between 30 and 34.9 is obese.

A 2007 study on college students and obesity published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that obesity rates increased rapidly during the duration of the study. The researchers wrote: “Students entering college may be making independent decisions about their diet, activity, and television viewing behaviors for the first time. New environmental and social factors may emerge during this time period to have a greater influence on their behavior.”

College students can struggle with control. The tough decisions about nutrition and exercise can send them on a roller-coaster ride with their health.

“There are a lot of choices to be made; it’s a totally different environment,” said Emily Schmitt, the University of Maryland fitness programs coordinator. “You have to find the time, it’s not built-in for exercising, and you’re selecting your own food, which may be totally different than the meals you’re used to from home.”

Researcher Terry T. Huang, professor and chairman of the Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, found that slightly more than two-thirds of 736 college students studied ate fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, which is the recommendation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His findings appeared in a 2003 study published in the Journal of American College Health.

Huang also found that students, on average, reported two days of aerobic exercise in the past week. The recommendation for weekly exercise is moderate intensity cardio, or aerobic exercise, for at least 30 minutes on five or more days per week, according to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.

While these findings paint a bleak picture for the health of college students, not everyone is at risk. Some, in fact, take advantage of their new freedom to make major health improvements.

Other college demons include stress, late nights, alcohol and easy access to fast food.

And then there’s the pressure.

“A lot of times when we’re stressed we may forget about making time for ourselves,” said Schmitt, who also works as a dietitian for Livelyte Medical Weight Management in Annapolis. “I think that contributes a lot, particularly when it comes to nutrition having that stress-eating, making those convenient choices when it comes to eating versus the healthy ones.”