More Than 80 Percent of College Women Diet

Skipping breakfast, smoking among the unhealthiest methods they use, study finds

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By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, March 31, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- While dieting is a common practice among college women, a new study has found that 83 percent of them diet no matter how much they weigh.

Worse, skipping breakfast and smoking are often the unhealthy techniques they use to try to reach their ideal size, said Brenda M. Malinauskas, lead author of the study, which appears in the March 31 online issue of Nutrition Journal.

She and her team polled 185 women college students, aged 18 to 24, about their dieting practices and physical activity. "I was a little bit surprised about the high percentage of women dieting," said Malinauskas, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and hospitality management at East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C.

In previous research, she said, she recalls seeing a figure of about 70 percent.

"I don't think it has increased," she said of college dieting. "I think it might be the way we classified dieting." Among the dieting behaviors she asked about were consciously eating less than you want, using artificial sweeteners, skipping breakfast, and smoking for weight control.

The researchers measured the women's height and weight, as well as other measurements, and classified them as normal weight, overweight or obese. Many of the methods used to lose weight were used by the women regardless of their weight.

Consciously eating less was reported by 44 percent of the normal weight women, 57 percent of the overweight and 81 percent of the obese. Artificial sweeteners were used equally by normal weight and overweight, with 31 percent of each group using them. Only 5 percent of obese women reported using the artificial sweeteners.

Smoking cigarettes was used as a weight-control measure overall by 9 percent of respondents. And 32 percent said they skipped breakfast.

The use of laxatives after eating was reported by 3 percent, and vomiting to control weight was reported by 5 percent.

Eighty percent of the women said they exercised to lose or control weight, but they didn't do enough to achieve that, Malinauskas said.

"We found a large percentage -- 80 percent -- used physical activity to control weight, but only 19 percent exercised to the level they would need to lose weight," said Malinauskas.

Fifty-eight percent of the women said they felt pressure to be a certain weight, and that the pressure came from themselves, the media and friends.

As to the use of various practices, Malinauskas said, "we really didn't find much difference due to body weight. I thought that we would have a higher frequency [of weight-control practices] in the overweight." But that was not always the case.

The research points to the need for individual counseling of college women to help them learn which practices to lose and maintain weight are healthy and which are not, she said.

She suggests college women who need guidance in weight control seek out help at the student health center on campus, which is likely to include a registered dietitian on staff.

The study results come as no surprise to Connie Diekman, director of nutrition for Washington University in St. Louis.

"It's an interesting study," said Diekman. "It affirms something we see. It pretty much holds with the girls I work with. They often don't know what healthy dieting is, they are focused only on the weight, as a number, but they aren't looking on how to achieve a healthy weight in a healthy way."

When she counsels college women and men, Diekman said, she encourages them to make behavioral changes slowly, not to make radical dietary changes they won't be able to keep up. "Look at your current food choices," she said she tells students. "Try to adjust portions or make better choices."

She said she also encourages them to pay more attention to regular physical activity, especially since workouts are hit-and-miss for many college students. "If it's a bad week at school, they cut back. If fun things are going on, they cut back. Overall, their physical activity is not at a level that would promote weight loss," she added.

For breakfast skippers, she suggests: "Start with a cup of yogurt or a piece of string cheese or a banana. Just eat something. It's a start."

Skipping breakfast is linked to overeating later in the day, and to decreased school performance, she noted.

More information

To learn more about eating right, visit the American Dietetic Association.

SOURCES: Brenda M. Malinauskas, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor, department of nutrition and hospitality management, East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.; Connie Diekman, R.D, M.Ed., director, nutrition, Washington University, St. Louis; March 31, 2006, Nutrition Journal

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