Welcome to the US of A — where 70%+ of adults are overweight, 7-Eleven serves up diabetes in a cup (64 oz. Double Gulps), and overweight airline passengers need to buy two dang seats!
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Obesity in America isn’t a new concept, but it certainly is a discouraging one. In fact, US obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980, even in the health-conscious Generation Z.
But just how severe is the obesity epidemic on college campuses? The 13+ statistics below are an eye-opening — and slightly sad — look at college student obesity.
The Rise in Obesity Among College Students
- About 23% of college freshmen categorize as overweight or obese.
- The overweight/obesity statistic climbs a jaw-dropping 78% to 41% between freshman year and graduation.
- The average college student gains about ten pounds while pursuing their degree (147 pounds vs. 157 pounds).
- A Fall 2020 survey found that half of all American college students consider themselves “about the right weight,” while about 33% admit being “slightly overweight.”
- The freshman weight gain is more than just a phenomenon, with college students increasing their adiposity (obesity) by about 1.2% each year.
- Male university students (11.5%) were more likely to be overweight or obese than their female classmates (2.4%).
Is the Freshman Fifteen Real?
(Fun Fact: In countries like New Zealand and Australia, the Freshman Fifteen go by a more sinister, shame-worthy name — “First-Year Fatties.”)
The phrase “Freshman Fifteen” dates back to a Seventeen magazine article published in 1989, with dieticians latching onto the phrase by 1992. Today, it pulls up 682,000 results on Google!
But does the Freshman Fifteen really exist?
According to the scientific community, not exactly!
Most studies confirm that first-year weight gain is, in fact, real and relatively common on American campuses. And, 60.9% of first-year students end the year heavier than they started it.
A 2008 survey of 125 college freshmen confirmed that first-year students gained about 5 ½ times more weight than the rest of the population.
Only 5% ended the year with the Freshman Fifteen — or more. But most students either maintained their weight (33%) or gained a significantly lighter 1–5 pounds (30%).
In reality, the so-called “Freshman Fifteen” is actually closer to the “Freshman 7 ½” among students who do gain weight. That, according to a 2015 meta-analysis of 32 studies!
(The “Freshman Seven-and-a-Half” doesn’t have the same ring to it, though.)
Why Males Students Are More Likely To Be Overweight
Here’s an unexpected plot twist for you: It’s not just college-aged males who are more likely to be overweight — it’s American men across the board.
In 2013, the NIH compared the obesity & overweight status in both genders. It revealed that rates are about 6.8% higher in men than women (73.7% vs. 66.9%, respectively).
(The data is a tad misleading, though. Women are actually twice as likely to be “extremely” obese and recorded 5.4% higher obesity rates than men; more men are overweight.)
So what’s inspiring this drastic battle of the genders?
The Body Mass Index Formula Is Ridiculously Flawed
The BMI formula assigns a “desirable” and healthy weight range for any given height.
For example, if you’re 6’0”, weighing more than 183 pounds will land you in the “overweight” territory. Bulking to lean 221 would bump your BMI up to 30, which is “obese” by BMI standards.
By this logic, a ripped 6’0” 205-pound Jeff Seid is on the verge of obesity, and Schwarzenegger is obese. That’s because the formula doesn’t factor in body composition — lean vs. fat mass.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “muscle weighs more than fat,” which isn’t quite true. A pound of muscle weighs just as much as a pound of fat, but the muscle mass is much denser.
If the NIH uses BMI to define who’s obese and overweight, anyone weighing 221 pounds at 6’0” will count as “obese,” whether they have 5% or 40% body fat.
College Obesity Demographics
- College graduates are less likely to be obese than high school graduates or dropouts.
- Obesity rates amongst the 12–19 age group doubled between 2000 and 2019, growing from 8% to 16%.
- About 40% of the 20–39 demographic is now obese or overweight.
- Thirty-five percent of college students are either obese or overweight.
- Americans aged 18–49 are likely to struggle with their weight, with 18.4% counting as “obese” and another 24.3% on the cusp of obesity.
- Black college students are more likely to be obese or overweight (47.5%) than the entire college population (34.1%).
- Sixty-eight percent of HBCU students aren’t physically active.
Why Are College Graduate Obesity Rates Lower?
So what’s the link between that $101,160 (public four-year) investment and obesity?
In a single word: MONEY.
Bachelor’s degree holders earn about $32,000 more per year than those with just a high school diploma. This extra financial security opens plenty of doors, such as:
Higher Income Levels
In July 2021, the only way to afford a one-bedroom apartment on a minimum wage salary was to work a 79-hour workweek.
For high school grads, independence often means juggling several jobs or working brutal, 12-hour shifts. Or splitting rent with a roommate to keep the costs of living low.
Many college graduates have the luxury of working standard 40-hour weeks earning higher wages. That leaves them more time in the day to home cook healthy meals and exercise.
Access to Better Healthcare
A beefier paycheck also offers more leeway when making healthcare decisions. This pay gap allows high-earning college graduates to invest in luxuries like dieticians and nutritionists.
Better health insurance also helps grads overcome barriers to a healthy weight. For example, finding treatment for arthritis or chronic fatigue syndrome.
More Financial Freedom To Be Healthy
With more free time and extra income, buying fresh or organic ingredients and registering for a 24/7 gym membership doesn’t create such a ripple effect financially.
It’s easier to spend $500/year on a gym membership or $50 extra on weekly grocery trips.
What Are Colleges Doing To Combat This Problem?
Although Gen Z isn’t nearly as obese as Millennials and Baby Boomers, the younger crowd is still much heavier than generations past.
We also know that obese children often carry these habits into adulthood. So these inactive children eating high-sugar, high-salt foods will soon be freshmen on college campuses.
Many universities are now rolling out obesity intervention programs to curb obesity on campus and release a class of healthier graduates into American society.
Some colleges are combating obesity in subtle ways by:
- Hosting free on-campus fitness classes, like yoga, spin, and circuit training
- Offering healthier food options in dining halls (i.e., vegan, low-calorie, fresh vegetables)
- Opening athletic facilities that all students can use, such as gyms and tennis courts
- Hiring on-campus nutritionists for students eyeing healthier lifestyle choices
- Adding paved walking trails on, through, and around campus
- Creating non-credit or elective physical education classes
Of course, since college is much laxer than the American public school system, all of these initiatives require student buy-in.
These days, only 39% of colleges have a physical education requirement. Higher education also exposes students to plenty of temptations, such as unlimited meal plans and boozy parties.
Why College Students are Obese (And How it Affects Them)
- Food insecurity — an issue impacting 25.4% of college students — increases the odds of obesity by 3.16–5.13 times.
- Seventy-three percent of college students admit to an unhealthy diet and rarely exercise, with a lack of motivation, time, and convenience being the common denominators.
- Overweight and obese university students are more likely to eat a high-sugar diet while slacking on milk, vegetables, and fruits.
- Poor sleep quality, long sleep times (9+ hours), and short sleep (<7 hours) is more prevalent in obese college students.
The Link Between Food Insecurity & Obesity
One of the hardest to grasp concepts on the subject of obesity is its link to food insecurity.
Logic would say that less food access means a lighter body weight or even the risk of starvation. But on American soil, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, a 2012 survey of 66,563 Americans revealed that 35.1% of food-insecure adults were obese, compared to 25.2% of food-insecure respondents.
There’s no single explanation for this paradox. However, the Food Research & Action Center lists the following reasons for high obesity rates in food-insecure communities:
Limited Fresh & Healthy Food Access
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, and low-fat dairy costs about $1.50 more per day, which snowballs into a lot for larger households.
Food insecurity also tends to be higher in low-income areas. These cities rarely have fresh farmer’s markets and healthy grocery stores, and residents may rely solely on public translation.
Unfortunately, these factors limit access to fresh, healthy foods and force locals to buy lunch at a convenience store or stop at the corner McDonald’s for a cheap dinner.
College students just scraping by may not be able to afford tuition plus a meal plan. Food intake may be less consistent for these students, and it’s also much more likely to be unhealthy.
The Surrounding Community
In areas where food insecurity rates are highest, other barriers stand in the way of healthy body weight, including:
- High crime rates and few safe places to get exercise
- Limited access to parks, hiking trails, and playgrounds
- Few healthy grocery stores and plenty of fast-food restaurants
- Fewer gyms or fitness centers
- Limited access to reputable healthcare providers or insurance
It’s a joint problem of not having the funding to buy healthier foods or invest in a gym membership and lacking the transportation needed to access these “luxuries” at all.
College students commuting to school aren’t able to escape these risk factors. Plus, 20% of today’s dependent students live in poverty, partially explaining college food insecurity rates.
How Far a Dollar Will Go
With a landslide of pricey college-related fees — tuition, room, board, meal plans, on-campus parking passes, and textbooks — money is tight in college, especially for low-income students.
A meal plan could cost upwards of $18.75 per day that students don’t have, and while a day’s worth of food off-campus averages about $11, that’s even tough to swing.
A $7 meal from a fast-food restaurant won’t deliver a healthy balance of nutrients. But it will provide plenty of calories and energy, even if it’s full of fat, sugar, or sodium.
College Students, Exercise, & Unhealthy Diets
The most common excuses for an unhealthy lifestyle in college are time and money.
There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to balance school, a social life, and basic everyday tasks. And, the finer things in life — like gym access or healthy food — don’t come cheap.
For obese college students, it’s the perfect storm of factors, like:
Alcohol and college students go together like whiskey and Coke. In fact, first and second-year college students down approximately 14 alcoholic drinks per week.
At about 125 calories per beverage, that’s an extra 1,750 calories consumed per week. Or about 26,250 calories by the end of the semester — or 7 ½ pounds (hmm…)
Many colleges require freshmen and all on-campus students to purchase pricey meal plans.
While this can help to fight food insecurity, the temptation can be tough to wrestle. It’s easy to imagine how an unlimited meal plan can quickly spiral into 15 pounds of weight gain per year!
Of course, while dining halls now offer healthier options, like vegan or gluten-free foods, the all-you-can-eat buffet-style and 24/7 halls lend to unusual eating schedules and overeating.
While 57.4% of high school students played at least one sport, a measly 7% of them will lace up their cleats in college. So many active teens now lack an athletic outlet and become sedentary.
College is also ridiculously stressful and time-consuming. In other words, there’s very little focus or time to lift weights in the on-campus gym or join in on a game of Ultimate Frisbee.
The most troubling part of obesity is that it’s a large-scale societal issue. Fixing the problem isn’t as simple as requiring physical education or cutting ties with an unhealthy food supplier.
The solution lies with each individual, like you.
Getting healthy doesn’t require an overnight lifestyle overhaul. Slow, subtle changes like swapping out bread, walking 15 minutes per day, or buying dumbbells are great first steps.
As each new habit becomes natural, you can ease into an even healthier routine.