A college student’s poor diet may lead to a lifetime of health problems including depression, obesity, and respiratory illnesses. This is what a team of researchers from China and Canada found. Their multi-site study, which was led by Dr. Shihui Peng from the School of Medicine at China’s Jinan University, looked at the eating habits of nearly 12,000 medical students in 31 universities in China.

Their aim was to determine whether there was an association between eating habits, obesity, colds, diarrhea, and other diseases.

Poor diet after college - images of 2 students and lots of junk food

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Poor diet can continue after college

Dr. Joan Bottorff, a Professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus’ School of Nursing, who was involved in the study, said that many poor eating behaviors start at college and can continue for several decades. She was also co-author of the study report, which was published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Preventive Medicine Reports (citation below).

Dr. Bottorff said:

“We know many students consume high-calorie meals along with sugary foods and drinks and there is lots of evidence to show those kinds of eating behaviors can lead to obesity. These are not the only habits that lead to obesity, but they are important and can’t be ruled out.”

The relationship between poor eating behaviors and respiratory illnesses and obesity was evident. However, it was not possible to show cause and effect, Dr. Bottorff pointed out

Dr. Bottorff added:

“There has been biomedical research that also supports this link between obesity and infectious diseases, and most recently this has been related to COVID-19. We know from some of the recent publications related to COVID-19, obese people were more likely to have severe conditions and outcomes.”

“Reasons that have been offered for this increased vulnerability include impaired breathing from the pressure of extra weight and poorer inflammatory and immune responses.”

Students typically eat high-sugar or calorie-intensive foods. If their eating habits continue well after university, they will be setting themselves up for a life of obesity. Long-term obesity significantly raises the risk of developing various chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

Anxiety, stress and overeating

Evidence shows that anxiety and stress can make people overeat, and vice-versa, i.e., overeating can cause stress and anxiety (which can lead to depression), Dr. Bottorff explained.

Dr. Bottorff said:

“The bottom line here is that we shouldn’t be ignoring this risk pattern among young people at university. It is well documented that a significant portion of students have unhealthy diets.”

“The types of foods they are eating are linked to obesity. And this can lead to other health problems that are not just about chronic disease but also infectious diseases.”

Students need to learn about healthy eating while at college. However, the onus should be on wherever they are studying to provide healthy food options. They must also be affordable for all students, she added.

Dr. Bottorff said:

“We need to think about the food environment that we provide students. We need to ensure that in our cafeterias and vending machines, there are healthy food options so that they can eat on the go but also make healthy food choices.”

Peng S, Wu D, Yang T, Bottorff JL. “Does Obesity Related Eating Behaviors Only Affect Chronic Diseases? A Nationwide Study of University Students in China.” Prev Med Rep. 2023; 32:102135. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2023.102135.