Obesity Awareness & Resources for College Students

Learn what contributes to college obesity, get expert advice on staying healthy while you study, and take away valuable resources that can help you develop a healthy lifestyle while you’re in school.

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Lisa Young

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Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. She inspires her community, including students, to make healthy food and lifestyle choices. Her website is drlisayoung.com.

last updated

Last Updated: 02/11/2021
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We’ve all heard of the freshman fifteen. Between dorm meals, increased alcohol consumption, and lack of physical exercise, it’s easy to understand how the college lifestyle could lead to weight gain. But the freshman fifteen and the obesity epidemic are two very different things. Obesity is defined by the World Health Organization as excessive fat accumulation that presents a health risk. It’s this potential health risk that makes fighting obesity so important.

There is no one weight that signifies a healthy person. Students of all shapes and sizes can be healthy, or unhealthy, depending on their lifestyle. It can be tricky navigating your health while juggling the personal, social, and academic aspects of college, but it’s absolutely crucial. You’re nothing without your health, and college can be a great time to get into good habits. From understanding what obesity is and learning the steps you can take to combat it to finding the resource needed to prevent it, read on.

Obesity & College: Beyond the Freshman Fifteen

Obesity is a complex health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), genes and family history, medications, and our daily behaviors play a significant role in our physical health and susceptibility to obesity. It’s important to remember that, while there are increased health risks associated with obesity, obesity in and of itself is not “bad,” especially in light of societal pressures to be thin.

Body mass index, or BMI, has been one of the standard medical methods for determining if a person is obese, overweight, or unhealthy. Some medical professionals today reject this standard. Sharon Zarabi, RD, argues that “we need to redefine health and look at the person as a whole, taking into account fitness level, sleep patterns, joint pain, vitamin levels, breathing, strength, happiness, [and] social connections.”

Furthermore, people who happen to be higher on the weight spectrum are not guaranteed to develop health issues because of it, points out Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author. Health is not weight-dependent; popular culture, as well as many medical professionals, should consider a more holistic equation based on physical and emotional health and not on weight alone, she says.

Our physical and mental health is significantly tied to an active lifestyle and healthy eating habits. Below we offer some important facts and figures for college students to consider so they can develop or maintain a healthy lifestyle while in school. By taking strategic and well-considered actions, students can lead a healthier life and avoid putting on the unwanted weight that’s often referred to as the “freshman 15.”

What contributes to obesity in college students?

Increased alcohol consumption

One source of added calories, sugars, and carbs for some college students is excessive alcohol consumption. Even if you don’t engage in binge drinking, regular alcohol consumption can contribute to weight gain and decrease your overall physical and mental health. Alcohol affects the way that your body digests food, takes in nutrients, and breaks down fat and sugars. According to Zoë Harcombe, PhD, at GetTheLoss.com, alcohol keeps your body from burning fat: “The body registers alcohol as poison; and so the liver prioritizes getting rid of the substance before doing the many other jobs it needs to do,” Harcombe explains. Burning fat, then, becomes less of a priority for your body when you’re drinking.

Decreased physical activity

Many college students get wrapped up in their busy class schedules and social lives. As a result, they end up cutting down on the physical activity that was once part of their daily routine. High school student-athletes who now are solely students, for example, might no longer engage in extended physical activity on a regular basis. Furthermore, college students end up sitting much more than before as they attend classes, do homework at their computers or library, and, in their leisure time, watch streaming services and use social media. This decrease in activity can be a significant factor in weight gain and obesity.

Poor meal choices and portions

Once students leave home and are making meal choices on their own, they tend to opt for less-than-ideal foods and they may overeat. From all-you-can-eat buffets in the college cafeteria to late-night pizza and fast food, you can easily consume hundreds more calories per day than your body needs. To avoid overeating, it’s best to measure portions when possible. Our expert, Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, argues that we can easily eat three times more than the recommended portion. For example, when pouring cereal, many people pour three cups into a bowl instead of the recommended one cup, Young explains. Consistently getting portion sizes wrong can quickly lead to weight gain.

Abnormal eating schedules

A college student’s schedule can get pretty hectic. It’s not uncommon for students to be up early or to stay up all night so they can finish homework, projects, or research. Let’s not forget that many students’ busy social lives aren’t conducive to normal schedules and getting a good night’s sleep. With so many long days and nights mixed into your weekly schedule, you can find yourself eating at strange hours or eating what might be a fourth or fifth meal for the day. Abnormal eating schedules combined with poor meal choices and oversized portions is a recipe for nutritional disaster.

Higher stress levels

For many students, college is a stressful time, and that often negatively affects a student’s physical health. According to experts at Verywelllmind.com, the stress hormone cortisol plays a major role in weight gain. Released by your body when you’re stressed, cortisol, adrenaline, and glucose combine to give you the energy needed to escape a dangerous or risky situation. However, once the risk has passed you’re susceptible to sugar cravings, and those can lead to weight gain. Cortisol also slows your metabolism, which makes it tough to lose weight even if you’re eating healthy most of the time.

What issues can obesity lead to?

The health issues that you can be at higher risk for are important to keep in mind. That said, being skinny is not the same as being healthy. It’s also important to remember that obesity is different than having a fuller build or curvy body contour.

According to the CDC, for some individuals, the health consequences of obesity include coronary heart disease, stroke, many types of cancers, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and more. In terms of mental and emotional issues, obesity has been linked to clinical depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. With the onset of the pandemic, medical professionals also warn that unhealthy people who are also significantly overweight are much more susceptible to serious, life-threatening complications if they get COVID-19.

Developing Healthy Habits in College: What Can Students Do?

While your own physical and mental health, and whether you feel healthy or unhealthy, is specific to you, there are certainly steps you can take to ensure that you’re moving in the right direction. To fend off excess weight gain that can move you into unhealthy territory, here are some changes to consider.

Get involved with club sports and intramural leagues

Many colleges and universities offer students access to workout facilities and recreation centers. These facilities may offer scheduled activities, games, and league sports designed to get you involved with other students and keep you physically active. If you’re not sure what’s available, contact the office of student life or the rec center on your campus. Getting involved with a club sport or intramural league can help you participate in rigorous physical activity on a regular basis, ultimately helping you be more mentally and physically fit. If team sports aren’t your thing, you can easily find other options. Dr. Young recommends that students check out activities including yoga, swimming, weight training, and any other physical activity that you enjoy.

Reconsider your dorm meal plan

Many college meal plans offer all-you-can eat meals, which can lead to overeating and unhealthy eating habits. Furthermore, you’ll find that cafeteria buffet lines offer both healthy and unhealthy food options. When all those foods are in front of you, it can be hard to make healthy choices all of the time.

If having a meal plan at your school is optional, you might consider skipping it. This might even be a more cost-effective way to navigate school, but meals will then be up to you. You’ll need to develop a budget, shop, and make food on your own. If you go this route, Dr. Young suggests that having only healthy snacks around is a good way to keep your diet in check.

If you would prefer to have a meal plan or are required to have one, you might be able to choose from different types, including light, medium, and heavy plans. A light plan typically includes one or two meals per day, including weekends. For those other meals, keep your dorm stocked with cans of low-sodium soup, canned fruits and vegetables, healthy frozen meals, and fresh fruits and vegetables with a long shelf life, such as carrots and apples.

Manage your school-related stress

There’s no doubt that college life can be pretty stressful for many of us. Between a hectic schedule, homework, and deadlines, you can find yourself maxed out a lot of the time. As it turns out, you might be more likely to consume extra, unneeded calories when you’re stressed. A study conducted by Huntington University showed that there’s “a significant correlation between the amount of over-eating [sic] and stress… [and] as stress increased for the traditional college student between the ages of 18 and 25, food consumption or overeating also increased.” Consult experts at your school’s health center for best practices on managing school-related stress. They can share techniques that will be effective for your particular situation.

Rethink what you drink

Most of us know that consuming alcoholic beverages can be a prime factor in putting on extra weight, but sugar-sweetened drinks like sodas and certain juices are also unhealthy when not consumed in moderation. HuffPost reports that men of all ages and college-age students (ages 18-24) are among the most likely to consume excessive amounts of these sugar-sweetened beverages. Instead, drink water and skip sports drinks when you’re exercising to avoid unneeded calories and sugar. According to Massachusetts General Hospital, one 20-ounce bottle of soda contains about 37 packets of sugar. A 12-ounce glass of orange juice contains about 180 calories, which is the same as eating three chocolate chip cookies.

Say no to all-nighters

Many students end up pulling an all-nighter at some point in their college career. Some stay up all night regularly to keep up with assignments or catch up on things they’ve put off until the last minute. While BMI is not the only gauge for physical health, studies show that people with higher BMIs often report sleeping less or having a lower quality of sleep than those with lower BMIs. There are also ongoing studies and hypotheses about the correlation between lack of sleep and increased appetite. Some researchers argue that less sleep can lead to an increased appetite and, therefore, cause you to consume more calories than your body needs. One thing is for sure: You increase your opportunities to eat when you’re awake for extended periods, which can lead to overeating or consuming foods that your body doesn’t need to be healthy. If you do your best to avoid these all-nighters, your body will thank you.

Try practicing mindful eating

Clinical psychologist Dr. Melanie Greenberg argues that, regardless of our shape or size, we could all benefit from practicing more mindful or intentional eating. It’s important that we pay attention to what we’re eating and how our bodies respond. While that might seem like an obvious point, it’s easy to tune out and eat while we’re distracted, such as when we’re cruising social media or watching TV. In fact, studies show that a person ingests 25% more calories when distracted. If we pay closer attention to our body and its signals, we’re more likely to make better decisions, enjoy our food, and avoid overeating. For more information, check out Greenberg’s advice at ActiveBeat or HelpGuide.

Don’t go it alone

Managing your food intake, level of physical activity, and physical and mental health can be challenging. These aren’t things that you need to do entirely on your own. As a college student, you’ll have access to a variety of on-campus resources for all of these aspects of daily life. Be sure to check with your student activities center and the student health center for specific information on what’s available to you. You may also be able to find a friend in your dorm or on campus who would like to be your partner in healthy pursuits. You’ll be able to hold each other accountable, exercise together, and check in on one another’s physical and mental health.

Expert Insight on College Obesity

Lisa Young
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Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. She inspires her community, including students, to make healthy food and lifestyle choices.

Her website is drlisayoung.com.

Q: What are some things that a student can do to make sure they’re making healthy choices despite having a hectic schedule and limited funds?

A: Here are some simple tips that college students can do:

Stock up. If you have healthy snacks around, that’s what you will eat. Keep the fridge stocked with apples, oranges, baby carrots, and other simple grab-and-go healthy foods. These are affordable as well.

Create structure. One of the most difficult aspects of losing weight is the lack of structure, especially now [during the pandemic]. So, I urge students to create a structure—plan when, what, and how much you are going to eat, and try to stick to it as much as possible.

Q: What are some of the physical and mental/emotional issues that obesity can lead to that students should be aware of?

A: Weight gain and obesity come with a host of negative consequences. These include increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers. Weight gain can also affect self-esteem.

Q: What are some tips for managing or easing school-related stress that could help students lead healthier lifestyles?

A: Exercising regularly can help relieve stress, which can also lead students to be more in touch with their bodies and help prevent weight gain. Walking, yoga, swimming, weight training, and doing what you love is important. Meditation helps as well.

Q: How can portion control help students eat healthfully and not gain weight?

A: Portion control is super important, as large portions contain more calories than smaller ones. My research found a perfect parallel between increasing portion sizes and the US obesity epidemic.

Try these simple tips:

Watch your food portions. You don’t have to weigh and measure every morsel of food, but you want to be aware of how much you are eating. Eat mindfully and pay attention to your hunger levels.

Pre-portion your snacks. Pre-portioning snacks or having measuring cups handy works well. For example, it’s really easy to mindlessly eat an entire jar of nuts. Portioning out a serving and storing servings in baggies helps.

Q: Where can students find help making good choices when it comes to food, exercise, stress management, and mental health?

A: There are many free resources available to students. College campuses have student health centers, which I encourage students to take advantage of.

If you use social media to gather health information, follow experts with actual credentials and degrees—a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or an MD. There’s a lot of false info on social media, so it’s important to check out the sources.

Resources & Tools for Fighting College Obesity

Healthy Eating

Harvard University Obesity Prevention Source: This resource includes information and links to articles on developing healthy eating habits while in school.

HelpGuide: Find a good rundown on mindful eating habits, techniques, and health benefits.

Nutrition Solutions Blog: Written by Kelli Worley, a licensed dietitian, this blog contains dozens of entries to help you find healthier eating habits.

ObesityAction.org: This resource provides tips on preventing the freshman 5, 10, 15, or 40, with advice from health experts.

SetToGo.org, “Healthy Eating on Campus”: SetToGo offers a short, helpful list of excellent and practical points related to eating on campus.

Working Against Gravity: This lifestyle and mindset blog offers an explanation of intuitive eating versus intentional eating and the pros and cons of each.

Getting Active

Colorado Technical University, “Four Reasons College Students Should Make Time for Exercise”: Located under the Success Tips blog, this article offers four easy-to-follow suggestions to become more active while in school.

New York University, “Physical Activity”: As part of its effort to help students develop healthy habits, NYU offers this extensive guide, including a physical activity stats and suggestions section.

SetToGo.org, “Ways to Get and Stay Active on Campus”: This quick reference offers great tips on using the campus fitness center, joining intramural sports, and starting a buddy system.

ThoughtCo., “How to Find Time to Exercise in College”: These 10 tips can help you create more space in your day for physical activity.

Sleep & Stress

Mayo Clinic, “Stress Management”: This thorough guide offers actionable tips for battling stress and highlights the importance of social interaction and physical activity.

PsychCentral.com, “The Health Benefits of Journaling”: Although journaling might seem like an elementary or out-of-date practice, this recent article showcases the benefits that journaling offers, including stress reduction.

Purdue Global, “The College Student’s Guide to Stress Management”: This extensive guide covers a dozen stress-management activities that students can try immediately, as well as how to make a plan and build a support system.

ThoughtCo., “How to Wake Up Feeling Motivated: 8 Tips”: The key to a productive and rewarding day starts with good sleep. You’ll find tips on waking up ready to tackle the day.

Verywell Mind, “Effective Stress Relievers for Your Life”: Reviewed by a medical doctor, this article offers four categories of stress relief techniques that are substantiated by clinical studies.

Verywell Mind, “How Does Sleep Affect Mental Health?”: This quick reference guide covers the importance of sleep when it comes to mental health and includes information on stress, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and finding medical professionals who can help.