High Blood Pressure and Obesity in the Dorm

Undergraduates' health risks go beyond booze and freshman 15, study finds.
June 15, 2007

Binge drinking and the freshman 15 aren’t the only health dangers facing college students.

A recent study of more than 800 undergraduates found that high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity are among the health problems plaguing college students.

The research, conducted at the University of New Hampshire during the 2005-6 academic year, yielded results that worried experts on student health.

Sixty-six percent of male students and 50 percent of female students had at least one symptom of metabolic syndrome, which includes high blood pressure, excess abdominal fat, high blood glucose, high triglycerides and low levels of good cholesterol -- all risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. One third of the students surveyed were overweight and obese, compared to nearly 40 percent of 18-to-24 year-olds nationally.

Joanne Burke and Ruth Reilly, both clinical assistant professors, led the study with lecturers Ingrid Lofgren and Jesse Morrell as part of the university’s “Nutrition in Health & Well Being” course. The study was first presented at the Experimental Biology Annual Meeting.

Only 5 percent of female students and 18 percent of male students met their daily recommendations for fiber intake. Most female students had too-low levels of iron, calcium and folate -- 77 percent, 67 percent and 68 percent, respectively.

Students were surveyed on their diet and exercise patterns and calculating their body mass index numbers. Researchers measured their blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. Students also kept a food diary for three days, later adding up the calories, carbohydrates and nutrients they had taken in during that time.

The purpose of the program, Burke said, was for students to become engaged with the course material in a hands-on way. “If they read surveys or look at other peoples’ data, they don’t really understand the health risks,” she said. “When they get their data back they ask, ‘What does it mean for me?’ and it’s a real eyeopener, it’s a way for them to connect to what they’re studying.”

Burke said that though studies of the alcohol use, sexual activity and other “vices” of college students are common, the concerns of obesity, vitamin deficiency and other issues facing the New Hampshire students have barely been studied at the college level, because they are “important, though not as immediate.” The Centers for Disease Control last did a comprehensive college-based health survey in 1995, collecting data from 5,000 undergraduates for the National College Health Risk Behavior Survey.

Though the New Hampshire team “doesn’t pretend to have data applicable everywhere" -- five percent of the undergraduate student body are minorities and fewer students were obese than the national average for the age group -- Burke said the results are indicative of national trends. “It’s the kind of project that can be modified for particular institutions and which I hope they choose to do so there can be some kind of pool of national data.”

Kathleen Malara, the director of health services at Fordham University and an expert on college nutrition, said that college students are “certainly at risk for not eating properly and then facing health problems.”

She said that many college students end up eating on the run, “picking up a Pop-Tart, not a banana or an orange or an apple.” In dining halls, students may choose French fries over a baked potato.

For many students, Malara added, college is the first time they have to be on their own in making every food choice during the course of a day. “In high school, students are still getting dinner at home and that’s probably a pretty good meal,” she said, “but in college, dinner can become unhealthy or not even exist.”

Beyond just the freshman 15, college students are often sedentary, she said, spending hours in one place, studying and snacking, but not getting exercise. Fordham is trying to stave off students’ health problems with plans to expand its intramural sports program in the fall.

But regardless of what goes on once students get to campus, Malara said that the rise in levels of childhood obesity and diabetes means that more and more students are arriving already unhealthy. “If they’re struggling with their weight and health before college, it’s not going to get any easier once they get there,” she said.

The New Hampshire researchers hope to follow-up with their students to see whether they actually took the data to heart. "A lot of students said they would change," Burke said. "Intending to change and actually changing are two different things."


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