Unhealthy Habits Among College Kids

Risky behaviors in college differ by racial group and are associated with cancer risk

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) College students don't always take care of their health needs, often taking part in behaviors that could put them at risk for cancer later on in life. However, not all students risk their health in the same ways.

A recent study found that the majority of college students engaged in risky behaviors associated with cancer, including unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. The researchers also found that the patterns of these types of behaviors differed between racial and ethnic groups.

These researchers believe that understanding these patterns can help health care professionals understand racial disparities in cancer that occur through adulthood. They suggested that health interventions directed at risky behaviors among specific racial groups could have a more significant effect on cancer prevention than targeting one specific behavior.

"Discuss risk taking behaviors with a campus doctor."

The lead author of this study was Joseph Kang, PhD, from the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois.

The study included 30,093 students from 39 different colleges and universities across the country that took the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), a long-standing survey that asks US college students about health-related behaviors and perceptions, in the fall of 2010.

The average age of the students was 21 years old, and 65 percent were female.

A total of 60 percent of the students were white, 7 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, 13 percent were Asian, 1 percent were Native American, 6 percent were biracial or multiracial, 2 percent identified as "other," and 2 percent did not identify their race or ethnicity.

The researchers focused on five cancer risk behaviors/conditions:

  • Tobacco use
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Alcohol binge drinking

The findings showed that 95 percent of the students had an unhealthy diet — defined as consuming fewer than five servings of fruit and vegetables per day.

A total of 64 percent of the students reported physical inactivity — defined as engaging in fewer than three days of high intensity exercise for at least 20 minutes, and fewer than five days of moderate intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes in the past seven days.

The prevalence of tobacco use was 24 percent, the prevalence of binge drinking (five or more drinks in one sitting in the last 14 days) was 33 percent, and 33 percent of the students were overweight or obese — defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more.

BMI is the ratio of a person's height to weight. It is used to determine if someone is overweight, underweight or a healthy weight.

The researchers found that the highest prevalence of binge drinking occurred among the white students, with 38 percent reporting engaging in the behavior.

A total of 75 percent of the Asian students reported physical inactivity — the highest rate of physical inactivity reported.

Tobacco use and binge drinking appeared to go hand in hand among all racial groups except the black students, who had the highest prevalence of unhealthy diet (98 percent), but the lowest prevalence of tobacco use (14 percent) and binge drinking (17 percent).

The findings revealed that the Native American students were the only racial group in which students reported engaging in all five risky behaviors/conditions. Fifty-one percent of this group reported being overweight or obese — the highest prevalence of overweight/obesity.

A total of 28 percent of the students who did not identify their race or ethnicity reported tobacco use — the highest rate of tobacco use reported.

“There are major cancer disparities both in terms of risk, morbidity and mortality with racial and ethnic minorities in the United States,” said study co-author Brian Hitsman, PhD, in a press release. “In this study, we see some of these behavioral risk factors already starting in young adulthood. Future research should monitor the persistence of cancer risk behavior clustering by race and ethnicity.”

The researchers noted some limitations to their study. For one, the students came from schools that volunteered themselves rather than being randomly selected. Therefore, these findings may not be generalizable to all students.

Also, the researchers did not define binge drinking differently for the men and women. Lastly, levels of animal product and fat consumption may have been a better indicator of diet quality than vegetable and fruit consumption.

This study was published online in May in Preventive Medicine, and will be published in print in the July edition.

The National Cancer Institute, the Northwestern University Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Bonnie Hunt Research Gift provided funding.

Review Date: 
May 12, 2014
Last Updated:
May 13, 2014