The mildly disturbing 2004 documentary Supersize Me sparked that “Come-to-Jesus,” “I swear I’ll never eat fast food again” moment in all of us at the ripe age of 11 or 12.
… or so we thought.
These days, with about one fast food joint per every 100 American college students, even the “wokest” generation of undergrads — Gen Z — can’t resist the temptation of fast-food chains.
So much so that an estimated 97.4% of college students admit to making fast food runs, and 26% would invest in meal plans if they offered more fast food options.
But Big Macs and Crunchwrap Supremes aren’t only “hangover cures” or 2 a.m. refuels during the occasional all-nighter.
Check out these shocking 13+ college students and fast food statistics!
How Often Do College Students Eat Fast Food?
- Seven in ten college students visited fast-food restaurants daily in 2015.
- College-aged adults (20–39 years old) collect 15% of their calories from fast food.
- University students indulge in fast food 70% more frequently than other members of the community.
- Fast food consumption amongst Indian college students is also rising, with only 34.52% admitting to less than one meal per week.
- 64% of college students consume fast food at least three days per week.
- Obesity rates in fast-food-eaters were about triple that of non-consumers (29.9% vs. 9.9%, respectively).
The Link Between Fast Food & Academic Performance
Only three numbers earn you bragging rights in college: how many beers you shotgun during rush week, how many Tinder matches you collect in four years, and — of course — your GPA.
But graduating with a 3.5+ GPA doesn’t only depend on how many study sessions you attend, extra credit assignments you beg for, or all-nighters you pull.
In fact, research published in 2020 discovered an interesting link between the self-reported GPA of college students and how often they consumed fast food in the last seven days.
The data shows that more fast food equals a lower GPA:
|How Many Fast Food Meals Per Week?||Average Self-Reported GPA|
|0||3.46 ± 0.44|
|1–3||3.37 ± 0.56|
|4–6||3.29 ± 0.58|
|7–10||2.99 ± 0.55|
Long-Term Effects of Fast Food Consumption In College
43% of full-time students split their time between classes and a part-time job.
With limited time to cook and rising tuition, fast food is the most logical option, especially for students on the brink of burn-out. (Is it the Quarter Pounders or mental overload tanking GPAs?)
Yet, recent scientific findings suggest that fast food does more than cause freshman weight gain and damage your heart; it could actually be causing brain damage and cognitive difficulties.
That, according to research in rodents out of Australia.
After consuming a diet high in sugar and fat (the “American” diet) for a week, the rats developed inflammation in the hippocampus — the area of the brain that handles memory and learning.
It took three weeks for the memory damage to fade after returning to a normal diet.
An Australian study in humans discovered similar results, that unhealthy diets can shrink the hippocampus and increase the odds of developing dementia or learning difficulties.
It’s no wonder college students who binge on fast food tend to struggle academically!
Fast Food Consumption and Student Demographics
- Research from India shows that most college students were female (74%), with 76% boasting <2000 rupees — or about $26.97 USD — per month in pocket money.
- About 43.5% of college students feasting on fast food 3+ times per day described themselves as being in “excellent” health; 47% were uninformed about sugars.
- 28.5% of female students splurge on fast food 2–3 times a month.
- Those same coeds were more likely to prefer French fries (80%), purchase fast food in their dining halls (34%), and admit that fast food is far from healthy (74%).
The State of Health Education In America
(Before you rag on Gen Z for thinking fast food is healthy or not knowing much about sugars, remember that 7% of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows …)
The question is: Do we really make it this far in life without a basic understanding of nutrition? Or is it simply easier to deny the facts to feel less guilty about giving into foodie temptations?
Concerningly enough, #1.
Three in four Americans claim to follow a healthy diet. Yet, 73.6% of American adults are overweight or obese, and 80% fall short of the recommended fruit and vegetable intake.
Atkins’ 2015 “Sugar Gap Study” only doubled down on this doubt. Researchers backed America’s ‘F’ on its nutritional report card by proving that Americans don’t know:
- How many carbohydrates to eat per day (89%)
- That so-called “hidden sugars” exist (12%)
- Natural sugars trigger blood sugar spikes (62%)
- That foods convert to sugar (90%)
In fact, only 28% of respondents could answer all nutrition-related questions correctly.
But now, we might know why fast food is still trendy and why Americans aren’t pumping the brakes: 33% of Americans say they never learned about nutrition.
How Much Do College Students Spend On Fast Food?
Enough to wonder how 13.5% of college students have <$50 in the bank but can still afford to dump $9 — or close to 20% of their life savings — into a Chipotle burrito bowl. Anyway…
In 2015, 70.6% of college students confessed to eating fast food at least once a day, with 36.3% admitting to three daily trips. (It’s like we didn’t learn anything from Morgan Spurlock’s journey.)
The average fast-food combo meal — including a burger, fries, and a soda — cost about $6 in 2020. Here’s how much these meals would add up if you turned it into a daily habit in college:
|Once Per Day||Twice Per Day||Three Times Per Day|
|Cost Per Day||$6||$12||$18|
|Cost Per Week||$42||$84||$126|
|Cost Per Semester||$630||$1,260||$1,890|
|Cost Per Year||$1,260||$2,520||$3,780|
|Cost Per Undergrad Degree (4 Years)||$5,040||$10,080||$15,120|
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Fast Foodies and Health Status
- Seven in ten university students boast a healthy BMI, with 9% of female students falling into the obese or overweight categories.
- Researchers discovered that 79% of male students maintained a “normal” BMI in that same study.
- About 31.6% of college students follow mixed or risky eating behaviors — frequent snacking, few vegetables and fruits, and high fast food consumption.
Fast Food & Healthy BMIs: Can They Coexist?
College seniors guzzle 19 alcoholic beverages per week, 33.7% of students smoked cigarettes in the last three months, and the average student eats fast food 1–3 times per week.
But, hey, at least 70–79% of students have a “normal” BMI, right?
Unfortunately, a person’s body mass index (BMI) isn’t an accurate measure of their overall health. That’s because the formula completely ignores body composition: fat and muscle.
Any 5’8” 150-pound college student will have a “normal” BMI, whether they have 5% or 40% body fat, follow a strictly fast food or vegan diet, or exercise daily or not at all.
So, yes, it’s entirely possible to be slim, inactive, and eat nothing but fast food.
But when you look past the thinness and deeper into how these habits impact the entire body — organs, brain, and all — you’re also heightening your risk of developing:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes, cancers, & heart disease
- Sleep difficulties
- Memory problems & dementia
- Fatty liver
From the outside, these students look “healthier” than their obese classmates. Yet, on the inside, there’s a thicker layer of visceral fat coating their organs (some call it “skinny fat”).
It’s Not Just Fast Food: These Are the Riskiest Eating Behaviors
60% of undergraduates describe their health as either “very good” or “excellent.” (Turns out, college students are either bursting with confidence or in complete denial. Either or.)
But it’s not only the fast-food binges that worry us. It’s the risky eating behaviors all-around, with research showing that:
- 63% of students lack proper fruit and vegetable intake.
- 29% of college students binge-eat.
- One in ten students will go an entire day without eating due to limited funding.
- One-third of college students skip meals because they can’t afford food.
- Six in ten students drink sugar-sweetened beverages every day.
- 61% of college students snack 2–3 times per day.
- 73.1% of students have greater access to unhealthy snacks.
In short, it’s the perfect storm of unhealthy factors.
The combo meal is extremely calorie-dense and loaded with macronutrients, providing the body and brain with the energy they need to stay awake during lectures or bike across campus.
But fast food has little to offer in the way of vitamins and minerals — which support body functions from wound-healing to muscle repair — and is full of salt, sugar, and fat.
University nutrition trends show that students aren’t filling these gaps elsewhere in their diets. Instead, they’re loading up on unhealthy snacks (and plenty of ‘em) and soda while skimping on the fruits and veggies.
Effects of Fast Food on College Students
- The 20–39-year-old demographic eclipsed a 29% obesity rate in 2017, with experts blaming poor diet and a lack of physical activity as the top two contributors.
How To Stay Healthy & Active In College
Obesity rates amongst college students are lower than other generations, namely Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers. But how do you avoid becoming a statistic in the first place?
Hop Onto the Meal Prep Trend
The typical college student has just one spare hour per day reserved for eating and drinking. It doesn’t help that classes fall at odd times and drag you away for six or twelve-hour stretches.
While undoubtedly less healthy, it’s much more efficient to visit the corner drive-thru and eat on the drive back to campus than fire up the Crockpot to make a fresh-cooked meal.
But there is a third option that only requires one afternoon of effort — Sunday meal prep — or preparing meals a week in advance and then freezing or refrigerating them to nuke later.
Find Exercise Opportunities
College campuses are loaded with fitness opportunities … if you know where to find ‘em. Most schools have a free gym for on-campus students. But you can also sign up for fitness classes at the rec center, run the track before football practice, or join an intramural league.
Online training platforms like Athlean-X and Beachbody On Demand allow you to bring the training to your dorm room, often equipment-free.
Stock Your Dorm Kitchen & Pantry
A mini-fridge, microwave, and hot plates are the key to following a healthy diet when the temptation of buffet-style dining halls and nearby fast food joints taunt you.
Make sure your dorm’s kitchen always has:
- Healthy foods, specifically snacks, cereals, & dried goods
- Water (by the gallon!)
- Milk & yogurt
- Frozen fruits
- Filling snacks, like popcorn or nuts
- Protein bars or energy bars
Why College Students Prefer Fast Food
- Weekly fast food consumption was most common in students living in metro areas, boasting more spending money, living in poverty, working at fast-food chains, and identifying as men.
- Students identifying with those criteria were also more likely to follow diets high in sugars and snacks and low in vegetables, exercise less, and be sleepless.
- Fast food is most popular at lunchtime (46.4%).
- While 54.7% of college students dump $5–$6 into fast food meals, 70% of fast foodies do so out of convenience and budget considerations — healthier foods cost more.
- Of the 85% of undergraduates eating fast food, some 17% do so daily.
- 40% of medical undergraduates agree that fast food is harmful to the body; 57% of architecture students and 26% of engineering majors feel the same.
- College students living on campus were less likely to eat fruits and vegetables and more likely to snack on fast food.
Why Do College Students Eat So Much Fast Food?
Sometimes, it’s a craving for a Wendy’s Baconator after a few shots of Jose Cuervo. Other times, it’s the only option during that awkward 10-minute gap between classes.
But generally, we can sum it up in four ways:
Fast Food Can Be Addictive
In the same way, alcohol or drugs trigger a dopamine release in the brain, the taste of fast food and its overflow of salt, sugar, and fat activates the brain’s reward system. After the dopamine rush fades, the brain learns to crave this “high” sensation, landing you in the drive-thru line.
Meal Plans Are Ridiculously Expensive (& Not Always the Healthiest!)
Most four-year universities require underclassmen and on-campus students to buy meal plans at a steep cost, averaging $4,500/year. Yet, at about $18.75/day, it’s somehow cheaper to dine out at fast-food chains three times per day than pre-pay for a nearly five-grand dining plan.
Cooking Fresh Meals Is Time-Consuming
Cooking meals can take 30–120. Plus, dorm rooms aren’t always compatible with cooking, lacking a refrigerator, oven, stove, and sink. Yet, two minutes after ordering a combo meal at the local fast food joint, you have a bag of hot food in hand and ready to eat — no prep!
Fast Food Chains Are Everywhere Around Campus
Many American colleges are in metro areas full of fast-food restaurants within walking distance. Others partner with local grub spots and allow students to use their flex or dining dollars off-campus at these restaurants.
So it’s not only available but also encouraged by the school. Fast food even has arrangements in high schools too.
We all know that fast food isn’t the healthiest option. But if you’re on the go or need a quick bite to eat between classes, the “healthier” fast-food chains include
- Panera Bread
Of course, it’s not the restaurants that are healthy as much as the individual food item you’re ordering. Choose foods with grilled meats, whole grains, vegetables, and low sugar.
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