Fleeing the nest and lavishing in that newfound college “freedom” is an eye-opening change for fresh-faced 18-year-olds dying to test boundaries.
But while all colleges hide mythical urban legends in their history, one college “myth” is very real and very widespread:
The dreaded Freshman 15 (or 5, or 30).
Just how reckless are those all-you-can-eat on-campus meal plans, nearby 24/7 fast food joints, and vending machines in seemingly every nook and cranny?
Pretty bad. Check out these 15 grim statistics on college student eating habits.
Table of Contents
- Nutritional Status of College Students
- Stress And Eating Habits Among University Students
- Students Who Eat Better Perform Better
- How to Control Your Diet Using Science
- College Students Eating Habits Can Lead To Health Conditions
Nutritional Status of College Students
- Almost 1 in 4 NYU students (24.3%) fit under the “overweight” umbrella, with 6% meeting the classic criteria for “obese.”
- Of the worst eating habits amongst college students, a lack of fruits and vegetables was the most startling.
- The average young adult eats fewer than one serving of fruits and vegetables per day; males eat slightly more greens than women (63% vs. 59%).
- The typical co-ed will snack at a fast-food chain 1-3 times weekly.
- The 19-39 age group guzzles more soda than any other age group.
- Fitter and thinner students tend to eat more whole grains than their overweight and obese classmates.
Why College Students Eat So Much Fast Food
It’s only natural for relationships to come and go during those college years, yet no connection is as invincible as the one you share with your favorite local fast food joints.
But why are college students becoming drive-thru regulars?
The answer ultimately lies in time, convenience, and cost.
In startling BLS data from 2015, full-time students dedicate one hour a day to eating or drinking.
If you’re sticking to the classic breakfast/lunch/dinner plan, you reserve just 20 minutes for each meal. When your classes fall around peak dining hall hours, that’s flat-out impossible.
Compare that to the average drive-thru time, which was 255 seconds pre-pandemic. Why wait in line in the cafeteria for a sit-down meal when you can shove fries into your mouth while studying?
It’s a no-brainer.
Of course, fast food joints are downright convenient by design. In a matter of minutes, you can drive away with a fully cooked meal, snack on the drive back to campus, and get back to work.
Sometimes, it’s the only option!
There’s nothing more American than realizing that the sugary, salty, and fatty choices at fast-food restaurants are more affordable than healthy meals.
Only one in three college students has at least $1,000 stored away in a bank account.
The extra $1.48 you can save a day eating dirt-cheap fast food winds up making a drastic difference in two areas: no growling stomachs and not draining what’s left of your finances.
Why Co-Eds Are Overweight
American college students are — well — American.
In a nation where 42.5% of adults are obese, 31.1% classify as overweight, and 9% suffer from severe obesity (within the obese group), college students aren’t free from this unfortunate trend.
As for the “why,” just look at the cliche eating habits and available foods on campus.
Many colleges offer the luxury of all-you-can-eat meal plans, just like going to a buffet 3-5 times daily. One swipe into the dining hall can turn into an out-of-control 2,000-calorie lunch.
But these awful nutritional trends don’t start on move-in day.
They’re deep-rooted in modern American culture.
The average American consumes 38+ gallons of soda a year, which, remarkably, is about 15 gallons short of where it stood in 2000.
And only 9.4% of boys and 12.2% of girls eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
The “free-for-all” mindset at campus dining halls only reinforces these undying trends.
Stress And Eating Habits Among University Students
- About halfway through the first semester (3-4 months), the average college student gains between 1.5 and 6.8 pounds; by the end of the semester, the number of students who classify as overweight or obese nearly doubles.
- College freshmen pack on some 3-7 pounds during their first year on campus.
- The worst college weight gain culprits were unlimited on-campus meal plans, regular snacking, and availability of junk food, accounting for 20% of added weight.
Reasons Behind Weight Gain In College
If you live on campus (or close enough), the number on the bathroom scale will almost certainly increase as the semester drags on.
As many as 70% of students will be about 12 pounds heavier by the time graduation rolls around.
The question — of course — is why?
There are a few factors to blame, like:
- Unlimited, free-for-all meal plans on campus
- Stress-eating (as seen in research)
- The “munchies” (wink, nod)
- College “towns” are often in cities, which happen to be fast food hubs
- Vending machines in what seems like every building
- Vendors like Starbucks on campus (college students gulp down coffee with sometimes 500+ calories!)
- The prefrontal cortex, which is at least partially responsible for impulse control and decision-making, doesn’t fully develop until about 25 (you don’t consider the long-term implications of your diet)
- A lesser availability of healthy foods
- Late-night binge-eating to break up cramming sessions
Will every college student fly home in May with an extra few pounds around their waist?
But if you’re living the traditional college student lifestyle from day one, don’t expect to be your fittest by the end of the semester. That requires students to exercise, consume a healthy diet, and stay dedicated to the process.
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Students Who Eat Better Perform Better
- Students who regularly ate more fruits and vegetables saw a difference in their GPAs, with scores climbing as much as 0.15 points.
- Breakfast routines played a pivotal role in GPA success, with students eating breakfast 5+ times per week sporting higher scores than those eating fewer than three breakfasts.
- College students with lower GPAs reported eating at fast food joints at least seven times during the previous week; those eating <4 fast food meals boasted higher scores.
How Diet Impacts Academic Success
A healthy diet can fine-tune your concentration during boring four-hour lectures and silence rumbling stomachs during GPA-defining final exams.
But the connection between diet and academic success digs much deeper than that.
- Eat breakfast.
- Consume your meals regularly (don’t binge eat or skip dinner).
- Choose nutrient-rich foods.
- Eat before class (and bring snacks if it’s a longer course).
- Skip fast food altogether, if possible.
There’s still little known about the exact link between diet and education, though it’s clear that college students who eat healthier tend to perform better academically.
However, a good diet isn’t a cure to an otherwise subpar education.
If you’re not studying, skipping class, or half-assing your assignments, breakfast won’t drive your GPA 0.15 points higher.
Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal of the Day (Or Is It?)
We all remember kindergarten teachers spewing the same old slogan: breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Or, maybe it was your frustrated mother convincing you to eat before hopping on the bus.
Nobody ever explained why.
A few science-backed explanations clarify the link between scrambled eggs and toast and a higher college GPA.
One study from 2018 discovered that those who eat a nutritious breakfast are more likely to eat healthier during the day. Nutrients like unsaturated fats and complex carbs support learning.
That early morning meal also provides an A.M. energy boost, keeping your brain sharp during 9 a.m. lectures and courses (when you’re normally sluggish) and also provides enough energy to tackle an invigorating workout and prevent injuries on the playing field.
This boosted concentration can improve your focus during exams and study sessions, enhance your cognitive abilities, and brighten your problem-solving skills.
How to Control Your Diet Using Science
- Choosing foods from the cafeteria line rather than from a menu spurred a unique nutritional trend: more healthful food choices.
- There’s an established link between paying with cash and making healthier food choices than simply swiping a debit card.
- Unrestricted, limitless debit cards were more common in students consuming more calories per day in college.
College Healthy Eating Tips
Even if you don’t describe yourself as a “foodie” or a “food addict,” curbing those unhealthy eating habits isn’t as simple as just stopping.
Ordering that double-decker burger for lunch and snacking on ice cream sundaes at midnight is now part of your routine.
Outsmart your eating habits by:
- Choosing a limited meal plan (ex: three meals per day)
- Paying in cash or putting a bank-level limit on your debit card spending
- Ordering all meals custom-made, adding fruits and vegetables whenever possible
- Replacing all sweetened beverages with water
- Stocking up on healthier snacks in your dorm room (like meal replacement bars)
- Investing in a mini-fridge
- Becoming a regular at the salad bar or the nutritional sections of the cafeteria
- Resorting to the “healthier” fast food joints if you’re in a hurry
The research has spoken: the more freedom you have in college, the more likely you are to abuse it. Limit those freedoms yourself, and save your health in the process.
College Students Eating Habits Can Lead To Health Conditions
You’re old enough to leave the nest, jet halfway across the country, and carry your academic success entirely on your shoulders (freshman year may be your first run-in with alarm clocks).
But while most college students are legal adults, they’re also incredibly naive. College students are frequent flyers at fast-food chains, binge-drink, and let loose on all-you-can-eat meal plans.
Let’s be clear: your college eating habits can — and will — catch up to you down the road. These reckless trends, especially fast food, can eventually lead to:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart (or cardiovascular) disease
- High blood pressure & high cholesterol
- Eating disorders (anorexia, binge-eating)
- Metabolic syndrome
A Big Mac, a
bucket large Coca-Cola, and an order of large fries (with extra salt) might not cause a heart attack or inch you closer to a diabetes diagnosis as a young and chipper 21-year-old.
But if your habits follow you post-graduation or spiral out of control, you’re on a deadly path.
Those 44% of college students rating their health as “very good” are in for a rude awakening if they’re splurging on greasy food at the dining hall.
What percent of college students eat unhealthy?
Research shows that food insecurity impacts nearly 42% of American community college students. In private four-year college circles, this number plummets to just 14%. Diet-wise, just 5% of college students eat enough fruit and vegetables, and the typical student packs on 3-7 pounds in year one. It’s safe to say that college students aren’t the healthiest bunch!
How many college students eat fast food?
Studies suggest that around seven in ten college students eat at fast-food chains daily. In the 20-39 age group (which includes most college students), nearly half — 45% — eat either pizza or fast food daily. The 24/7 chains, late-night study sessions, low-cost meals, and close proximity to campus are likely to blame for this spiraling fast-food trend.
Why is it so hard to eat healthy in college?
College students develop unhealthy eating habits for quite a few reasons:
- There’s not enough time to make healthy food.
- Constant snacking is part of the cliche college culture.
- High-calorie foods are more convenient.
- Healthy foods both on and off-campus are pricey.
- Junk food is everywhere.
When you’re in the throes of the high school to college transition, it’s easy to fall victim to the classic college vices — alcohol-fueled parties, Taco Bell runs, unlimited meals in the dining hall.
But you don’t have to end freshman year 15 pounds heavier.
Get control of your on-campus eating habits by:
- Ordering food in the dining hall line instead of from the menu
- Adding a serving of fruits or vegetables to each meal
- Making simple food switches (i.e., ditch the white bread for whole grains)
- Starting each morning with breakfast, whether you have class or not
- Paying with a restricted debit card
- Staying active (join intramurals, run the campus loop, do calisthenics in your dorm)
- Curbing the fast food urges by meal prepping or not bringing a debit card to campus
Your college eating habits will continue to follow you after snagging your degree, for better or for worse. Set yourself up for long-term success by adopting healthier habits now.
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