New Study Finds that College Freshmen Exceed Many U.S. Dietary Guidelines, Increasing Risk of Chronic Health Conditions


Mason: Health Starts Here study finds most college freshmen exceed U.S. dietary guidelines for added sugar, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat.

Image of a college student using a laptop with a slice of pizza in their hand
Photo by Armin Rimoldi from Pexels

The “Freshman 15” is common among college students, when newfound independence and unrestricted access to dining halls make them more susceptible to poor nutritional intake. Poor nutrition in college students is correlated with an increased risk of a variety of chronic health conditions.

Mason: Health Starts Here (HSH), a longitudinal cohort study, finds that most college freshmen exceed U.S. dietary guidelines for added sugar, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat, which are all nutrients that should be limited. Physical activity, race/ethnicity, and living on campus contributed to the excess intake of these nutrients.

Why don’t college freshmen meet the US dietary guidelines for added sugar, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat? is published in the Journal of American College Health.

The data analysis in the study was conducted by Ziaul Rana, a former postdoctoral research fellow at Mason and current researcher at the New York Academy of Sciences; Erika Kennedy, Master of Public Health student; Lilian De Jonge, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies; Lawrence Cheskin, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies; Cara Frankenfeld, associate professor at the University of Puget Sound; and Jaclyn Bertoldo from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“There’s very little published information on young adult college students’ diets,” said Cheskin. “While it is known that college students suffer from poorer nutrition on average, less is known about the food source contributors to nutrients recommended for limited consumption and personal characteristics associated with meeting dietary guidelines.” This study has filled in some of those gaps.

One-third of participants met added sugar guidelines and only 4% met daily refined grains requirements. Fewer than half met saturated fat guidelines, and slightly over half met recommended sodium guidelines. Recommendations for each nutrient came from Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is released by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Most sugar intake was from fruits, soda, and sweetened water. Pizza and rice were the most popular source of refined grains and sodium with pizza hitting the trifecta and also coming in at the top of the saturated fat category.

Funded by Mason’s Institute of BioHealth Innovation, HSH is a first-of-its-kind transdisciplinary student cohort study to understand and improve the health and well-being of university students. It follows a broad sample of young adults, specifically Mason students, over time to capture the diversity of their experiences in college and how it affects their health and well-being. The added sugar, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat study was done using the 2019-20 HSH cohort using a food frequency questionnaire that reflected the past month’s food with portion size designed to assess food and dietary intakes.

In order to determine whether this study can be used to generalize across other college-aged students, the team compared it with similar age and education data from the 2015-16 and 2017-18 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a representative sample collected by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Most participants in the HSH study resided in urban areas and had mid-level socio-economic status. Thus, the results may not be generalizable to students living in rural areas or those with a lower level of income,” says Cheskin.