New Nutritional Research Indicates College Students Face Obesity, High Blood Pressure, Metabolic Syndrome
By Beth Potier, Media Relations
June 20, 2007
Obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and inactivity: they’re
not just your father’s problems any more, UNH research finds. New
data on the widely unstudied demographic of college students indicates
that this group of 18 – 24-year-olds are on the path toward chronic
health diseases. Although limited, national data suggest the trend is not
unique to UNH.
The data, collected from more than 800 undergraduates enrolled in a general-education
nutrition course, find that at least one-third of UNH students are overweight
or obese, 8 percent of men had metabolic syndrome, 60 percent of men had
high blood pressure, and more than two-thirds of women are not meeting
their nutritional needs for iron, calcium or folate.
“They’re not as healthy as they think they are,” says
lecturer Ingrid Lofgren, who is collecting and analyzing the data with
her Nutrition in Health & Well Being co-teachers Joanne Burke and Ruth
Reilly, both clinical assistant professors, and lecturer Jesse Morrell.
The researchers, who presented their findings at the recent Experimental
Biology Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., initially asked students to
engage in a variety of health-indicator screenings like blood pressure
and cholesterol to bring the class alive with interactivity. They soon
realized, however, that the size of the class (525 students per semester
enroll in the course; 40 percent of UNH undergraduates take the course)
gave them a gold mine of health information on a group about which little
“This is a very understudied population. They’re very hard
to reach,” says Reilly, noting that large phone surveys of this age
group, such as one conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2003,
generally do not reach students at college or cell phones.
As part of the course curriculum, students conducted a range of health
screenings on themselves, which the instructors say is an effective teaching
tool. “Students feel they’re invincible; they think they’re
cholesterol isn’t going to be high, that’s their dad’s,” says
“When you tell students, ‘this is your data,’ they sit
up and pay attention,” adds Morrell.
Students completed questionnaires on their lifestyle behaviors and dietary
habits, chronicling their smoking, exercise, alcohol consumption, and consumption
of fruits and vegetables. Their body mass index (BMI) was calculated from
their height and weight, their waist circumference was measured, and they
were screened for blood pressure as well as glucose, triglycerides, total
cholesterol, and high-density cholesterol. The students also completed
a three-day food diary and analyzed their calories, carbohydrates, and
nutrient intakes with nutrition software.
Individual results shocked many of the students, and the aggregated data
contradicted the notion that college students are at the peak of health.
Metabolic syndrome, a cluster of five risk factors (high blood pressure,
excess abdominal fat, high blood glucose, high triglycerides, and low HDL
or “good” cholesterol) that are predictive of future development
of heart disease and diabetes, is particularly prevalent in males. Sixty-six
percent of males (compared to 50 percent of females) had at least one risk
for metabolic syndrome, and eight percent of males had metabolic syndrome.
“These individuals, if they continue on this trajectory, are going
to be much more of a health burden at age 50 than their parents are,” says
The vast majority of students – 95 percent of women and 82 percent
of men – are not meeting nutrient recommendations for fiber. Women’s
intake of the important nutrients iron (23 percent meet recommendations),
calcium (33 percent meet recommendations) and folate (32 percent meet recommendations)
are remarkably low. Twenty-three percent of men and 34 percent of women
participated in less than 30 minutes of activity per day.
The good news? “We have very few smokers,” says Reilly. Also,
Morrell notes that UNH students may be slightly healthier than their peers;
national rates of overweight and obesity in this group are close to 40
The other good news is that these nutritional benchmarks hit students
at a time – and in an environment – when they’re susceptible
to change. “Late adolescence is a great time to impart good health
behaviors,” says Reilly, noting that most college students are making
independent choices about food and activity for the first time in their
“It was a real wake-up call,” says Heather Carmichael, a UNH
senior and former Nutrition in Health & Well Being student. “I
was a vegan and I thought my diet was superb, but no. I wasn’t getting
enough calcium and I had one risk factor for metabolic syndrome. I was
The research can also help inform school policy, from portion size education
in dining halls to routine blood pressure screenings at health services.
In addition to publishing their results, the faculty team is looking to
help other universities – especially those with greater ethnic diversity
than UNH – replicate their study. “We’re collecting data
that’s useful to the students, to the university, and to us. The
project is a win-win for everyone,” says Morrell.