N° 25 | July 2008

Fruit and vegetable intake among college students

Fruits and vegetables have been shown to produce health benefits by numerous research studies. However, there continues to be substantial gaps between recommended and actual fruit and vegetable consumption among the majority of individuals living in the United States(1,2,3). Interestingly, for individuals ranging in age from 18-24, the percentage who reach appropriate fruit and vegetable consumption is approximately 3 percentage points lower than the population as a whole(4).

Previous research has demonstrated that as young adults progress through their college years, several health behaviors, including fruit and vegetable intake, can be negatively affected (5). This situation is critical due to the fact that poor health behaviors during young adulthood can increase the risk of several chronic diseases in older adulthood(6). This suggests that the college years are a critical time period to teach young adults how to develop and maintain healthy behaviors(5,6).

Although the need to educate young adults regarding healthy behaviors is clear, there are few published studies reporting the effectiveness of dietary and health interventions among this population. Therefore, the purpose of our study was to investigate the association between fruit and vegetable intake and both behavioral and demographic variables to better enable health professionals to effectively design interventions that target multiple risk factors.

Data for this study was gathered from approximately 40,000 U.S. college students between the ages of 18-25 at 28 colleges and universities during 2002 and 2003. Participants in this study completed the American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment, which assesses both behavioral and demographic variables.

The results of our study demonstrated that full-time students were more likely to have higher fruit and vegetables consumption when compared with part-time students. In addition, students who were separated, widowed, or divorced reported higher fruit and vegetable intake than students who were single or in a committed relationship. Black students demonstrated significantly lower fruit and vegetable consumption than white or Asian students. Furthermore, both Black and Hispanic students consumed fewer fruits and vegetables than both multi-racial and “other” racial ethnic groups. Interestingly, students who lived in residence halls, fraternities, and sororities reported greater fruit and vegetable intake than those living in other campus housing, off-campus, or with parents.

Fruit and vegetable intake was also found to be positively associated with greater seat belt and helmet usage, vigorous physical activity, perceived health, strength training activity, use of sunscreen, likelihood of condom usage, and grade point average. Fruit and vegetable intake was also inversely associated with cigarette smoking, alcohol use, risk of high blood pressure among women.

Our findings seem to suggest that fruit and vegetable intake is associated with other health behaviors among 18-25 year old college students in the U.S. Although the findings are crosssectional in nature, the associations suggest that current programming on health topics available at colleges and universities could be enriched. For example, programming on topics such as smoking, alcohol use, physical activity, sleep, and mental health could be supplemented by adding brief messages about fruit and vegetable intake.

The few studies that have investigated fruit and vegetable intake among college students have consistently indicated that very few meet the fruit and vegetable intake recommendations and even fewer receive information from their institution regarding this issue(7). Indications to increase intake among this population and the population as a whole are outlined in Health People 2010. Because the avoidable disease burden among this population is large, efforts should be made to increase intake.

Although the body of literature regarding fruit and vegetable intake among college students is small, the possibility to make a difference in their lives is large. The identification of several predictors of fruit and vegetable intake in our study may be helpful to health professionals when planning interventions to improve the health of college students.

  1. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Trends in intake of energy and macronutrients- United States, 1971- 2000. 1997; 46(6):1-54.
  2. Centers for Disease Control. Physical activity and good nutrition: Essential elements to prevent chronic diseases and obesity. 2004. ( retrieved 6/24/04). www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/aag/aag_dnpa.htm.
  3. Winkleby MA, Cubbin C. Changing patterns in health behaviors and risk factors related to chronic diseases, 1990-2000. Am J Health Promot. 2004;19(1):19-27.
  4. Serdula MK, Gillespie C, Kettel-Khan L, Farris R, Seymour J, Denny C. Trends in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults in the United States: Behavioral risk factor surveillance system, 1994 – 2000. Am J Pub Health. 2004;94(6):1014-1017.
  5. Cullen KW, et al. Gender differences in chronic disease risk behaviors through the transition out of high school. Am J Prev Med. 1999;17(1):1-8.
  6. Centers for Disease Control. Health topics, nutrition school health guidelines. (retrieved 2004). www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/nutrition/guidelines/summary.htm.
  7. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: National College Health Risk Behavior Survey — United States, 1995. MMWR. 1997;46(SS-6);1-54.
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