Studies reveal poor health scores for college students, with half of males and 30 percent of women overweight or obese.
The surprisingly high results from an ongoing survey led by the University of New Hampshire’s Young Adult Health Risk Screening Initiative show that students eat unwholesome diets and get too little physical activity. Scientists surveyed nearly 800 college students, ranging from 18 to 25 years old, about their daily activities and eating habits. They also measured participants' weight and blood pressure, and tested for signs of heart disease and diabetes.
One-third of the students surveyed were considered overweight in the BMI scale and about 10 percent were in the obese range.
Surveyed men reported eating about 2,700 calories a day, while the women consumed about 1,800. Test results concluded over 80 percent of all students weren't getting enough potassium in their diets, and many students didn't meet the Food and Drug Administration's recommended levels for key bone-health nutrients-calcium and vitamin D.
"We were astounded," said study team member Joanne Burke. She explained that part of the problem is the college-life environment: students spend excessive amounts of time in front of a screen for video games and TV watching, resulting in a lack of activity. "I think it's a combination of the obesigenic environment," Burke said. "There's food at every corner; portion sizes have gotten bigger; students have gotten bigger."
The research, which was presented at an American Physiological Society (APS) conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C., reveals information on the lifestyles of an age group for which little is known.
"We don't have great data on [college-age students]. We assume they are healthy," said Jesse Morrell, a nutrition and obesity scientist at the University of New Hampshire.
Without parents around encouraging healthy habits, students in college are on their own to stay fit.
"We know this is a time in their lives where they are making those independent lifestyle choices," Morrell said. "They are no longer with their parents or caregivers. And we think intervention here may be optimal."
Junk food may play a major part in the lack of nutrition in a college diet. Most students, 95 percent of the men and 70 percent of women, consumed too much sodium- a telltale sign for an unhealthy diet.
"Sodium is a nutrient found in a lot of foods but we tend to get most of it in our diets from processed foods," Morrell pointed out.
The sodium consumption linked students with health risks. More than half of the men and about 20 percent of women showed high blood pressure, surprising scientists. "This population is a young group, and we don't often think of them in terms of hypertension and treating them for high blood pressure," Morrell said.
Students who reported that they eat their meals at the dining hall showed higher intakes of folate, a B-vitamin found in citrus fruits, tomatoes and leafy green vegetables. For women, folate intake has been linked with lower blood pressure.
Close to one-third of the students considered themselves "inactive," with fewer than 30 minutes a day of physical exercise.
Researchers now want to expand their study to include more direct measurements of physical activity, possibly by having students wear pedometers. Morrell explained that the first step in improving the situation is to get a baseline for how healthy or unhealthy are college students. He then believes action may be necessary. "We think intervention here may be optimal, but we need to start somewhere."
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