Lifestyle Behaviors among Students at a Historically Black University

Michelle Hill
Shawnee Sweeney
Bridgett Clinton-Scott*
University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES)

Key Words: nutrition, healthy eating, food labels, healthy lifestyles, college students


This study expands the knowledge about lifestyle behaviors among college students. The purpose of this study was to determine if there was a difference in the health habits of college males and females. Participants anonymously answered a brief questionnaire that included questions about their current eating habits and physical activity level. Previous research indicated that females are more likely to possess healthier habits than males because of their interest in body image, prior nutrition education, and use of nutrition labels. The results of this study revealed that college male students possessed healthier habits than females. The males consumed more fruits and vegetables, read nutrition labels, and made better choices in their beverage selections. This study supported a common correlation in which college students, both male and female, meet the recommendation for physical activity. It was concluded that gaining the proper nutrition education can motivate college students to make healthier lifestyle choices that can continue into future years.        


Obesity is a growing health issue among Americans today. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic diseases (e.g., hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease) are the leading cause of death in the nation, and 75 percent of health care costs are used for treatment of these diseases. These conditions can be prevented and treated by engaging in healthier habits, which include nutritious eating and engagement in frequent physical activity.

College is a time for students to learn how to make adult-like decisions. It is important for this target population to be aware and use resources, such as food labels, and to consistently engage in behaviors that keep them healthy. The current study addressed the following research question: "Among college students at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), which gender will exhibit more healthy habits?"

Literature Review  

Branen and Fletcher (1999) researched college students' current eating habits in relation to their childhood practices. It was determined that adolescents eventually reverted to preferring the same foods as their parents. Adolescents' ideas about eating reflected values learned from family, friends, teachers, and mass media (Branen & Fletcher, 1999). The research was conducted with 546 undergraduate students, ages 18 to 23 years old. The results of the survey showed that both males and females who participated in the study were at their correct weight range using the measurements of body mass index (BMI); the mean for males was 23.83 and the mean for females was 22.13. Over half of the respondents reported that both parents worked outside the home when the subjects were children, 41.4 percent reported that only their fathers were employed outside of the home, and 2.2 percent reported their mother as the only one employed. The results of this study suggested that proper eating habits for both college male and females were mainly affected by their childhood caregivers. Students who grew up eating healthy were more likely to continue those habits into college and adulthood.                                        

Deshphande, Basil, and Basil's (2009) research established that healthy eating habits were established at a very young age, instilled by parents and preschools, and carried on throughout life into later years. The research objective was to study eating habits among college students because poor eating habits pose a public health issue that has important health and economic implications. The central purpose of the study, however, was to show the predictive ability of the Health Belief Model (HBM) and the likelihood of healthy eating among college students. Deshpande, Basil, and Basil (2009) defined healthy eating as a diet low in saturated fats, sodium, sugar, and bad cholesterol in contrast to a diet high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables. The participants in the study ranged in ages of 18-24 and included 194 undergraduate students recruited from a Canadian university. Forty-five percent of the participants were female and 55 percent were males. The average body mass index (BMI) was 23, which indicated a normal and healthy body weight. The data indicated that students who lived on campus and students who lived off campus had different eating patterns. The research also indicated that eating habits varied by gender. Females tended to eat more fatty foods; the consumption of fruits and vegetables was similar among males and females. Men who lived off campus were found to have higher energy levels from proteins than men living on campus. Women who lived off campus had higher ingestion of fat and higher ratio of total cholesterol to high density lipoprotein (HDL), which increase the risk of chronic diseases. Deshpande, Basil, and Basil (2009) concluded that their findings supported the Health Belief Model. According to the results of the data, females had more intention to consume a nutritious diet than the males.

Monteiro, Jeremic, and Budden (2010) found that gender and ethnicity were modifiers of nutrition behaviors and exercising habits among college students. College students developed food choices and healthy habits based on their childhood and learned from the caregivers that raised them. According to Monteiro et al. (2010), college students spent almost half their money at fast-food and sit-down restaurants. In addition, only 7.3 percent of college students ate the daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. The results of this study revealed that students ate more foods that are high in fat, calories, sugar, and sodium—foods that are typically low in cost and more convenient. Many college students also lacked knowledge regarding healthy eating (including reading labels) and exercise to maintain health (Monteiro et al., 2010). The study indicated that females did read labels more than males, even though the difference was slight. 

Soliah, Walter, and Antosh (2006) investigated women and food preparation. Food preparation practices have changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Their research examined why women prepared certain foods and the frequency of eating outside the home. The results indicated that 90 percent of students could prepare basic foods such as hamburgers, tacos, mashed potatoes, and scrambled eggs (Soliah et al., 2006). A general observation was that if students had the food preparation ability, they were very likely to prepare the food. Two conclusions were that students had never been taught cooking skills and that they had no interest in learning. The average food preparation time for dinner was 37 minutes, and Americans seem to be more concerned about the ease and convenience and not the nutrition of the meal. For women with time constraints, health interventions need to focus on ease, convenience, and preparation of the food, as well as the nutritional value (Soliah et al., 2006). The data from this study indicated that the more frequent college women ate meals outside the home the more their cooking ability decreased (Soliah et al., 2006). Knowing how to cook efficiently decreased the likelihood of having high fat and calorie meals at fast food and sit-down restaurants. This study concluded that cooking skills were positively correlated to healthy eating for both males and females.

A related study by Franciscy, McArthur, and Holbert (2004) investigated the interest in food purchasing and preparation by college men. Selected for this study were 205 college males on campus that differed in race, academic classification, and living arrangements. A questionnaire collected data about the factors that influenced food purchasing and meal preparation. College males and females were described as nutritionally vulnerable because they tended to eat foods that were low in fiber, low in calcium, high in fat, and not energy dense. Males were reported to have higher intakes of cholesterol, sodium, and alcohol than females. According to Bothmer and Fridlund (2005), females were more interested and motivated to make healthier food choices. New trends have suggested that in the future men are likely to engage in activities like food purchasing and preparation.    

In regard to food purchasing, Franciscy, McArthur, and Holbert's (2004) research revealed that the most important factors when purchasing foods were good taste, expiration date, and freshness.  Factors that were of least significance when purchasing foods included ethnic heritage and religious affiliation. Significant differences between white and non-white students when purchasing foods were buying comfort foods, using coupons, and buying brand names. Grocery stores and off-campus convenience stores were food outlets that were visited the most frequently by students. Meat, poultry, and fish were purchased at least one to two times a week. Fresh fruit was purchased more often than canned or frozen fruit. Only eighteen percent of the male students read food labels when purchasing food (Franciscy et al., 2004).  More than half of the students reported cooking breakfast in 7 minutes, lunch 11 minutes, and dinner in 27 minutes. The majority of food preparation methods included using a microwave (82%), toasting (52%), and grilling (45%). Although college men were not described as meeting the recommended dietary needs, two-thirds of the college students in this study were interested in learning more about food preparation (Franciscy et al., 2004). It was determined that it was important to know what men look for while food purchasing and how well they can cook in order to encourage males to make healthier food choices. 

Monteiro et al. (2010) found that college students were an ideal group to study because their health behaviors were heavily influenced by how they were raised. Bothmer and Fridlund (2005) investigated the health-related behaviors and motivation among young people.  Healthy behaviors were determined by socioeconomic factors, lifestyle, and physical environment. Gender differences in health were predicted by elements such as social support, smoking and drinking, exercise, and stress (Bothmer & Fridlund, 2005). It was hypothesized that women were more likely to possess healthy habits than men and that men participated in more physical activity. The study was conducted at a small university in Sweden, and the sample of students was randomly selected. Questionnaires were sent to 479 full-time students, and 332 questionnaires were returned. The questionnaires asked simple questions in regards to socio-demographics, health complaints, motivation for a healthy lifestyle, health habits, weight concerns, sexual life, and social support (Bothmer & Fridlund, 2005). A statistical electronic program called the Health and Health Habits Instrument was used to organize and rank the data. The results of the study showed many gender similarities and differences. Using height and weight from the questionnaire, BMI was calculated. Males had substantially higher BMI than females; 61 percent of males were overweight and obese and were satisfied with their weight. Women with normal BMIs also wanted to weigh less. Female students had healthier habits and a better knowledge of nutritional information than males. The majority of the population described as having high levels of stress were female.  In regard to drinking alcohol, females consumed less alcohol and less frequently than males. Of the 15 percent that consumed heavy amounts of alcohol, 40 out of 48 were males. Important factors that described females having healthier lifestyles were their motivation to participate in healthy activities and their interest in changing their dietary habits (Brothmer & Fridlund, 2005). High levels of stress increased females' motivation for eating healthy and exercising. These results indicated that college females were more motivated to make healthier decisions. Although college males were more likely to participate in physical activity, they were involved more in contradicting habits such as heavy alcohol consumption and smoking. 

Mirsa (2007) examined the knowledge, attitudes, and use of labels among college students.  This target group was selected because knowledge of nutrition was limited and it was important for this age group to understand and practice proper label use in order to maintain healthy eating practices (Mirsa, 2007). The sample included 184 graduate students and 353 undergraduate students from two Midwestern universities. It was predicted that higher levels of nutrition knowledge would increase label reading and that prior exposure to nutrition education would directly improve attitudes towards label use (Mirsa, 2007). The students were given a survey that assessed nutrition knowledge, prior nutrition education, attitude toward food labels, label reading behavior, and label use. The results revealed 55 percent of the students had never read, heard, or been taught information about how to use food labels (Mirsa, 2007). More women reported prior exposure to nutrition education classes than men. The undergraduate students reported being more physically active and had lower body mass index (BMI) scores compared to the graduate students. Mirsa (2007) also found that women in general had significantly lower BMI scores than male counterparts as well as significantly higher label reading behavior scores and nutrition knowledge. These results revealed that individuals who have more nutrition knowledge and read nutrition labels are more likely to make healthier food choices. This study indicated that college women were likely to have healthier habits than college men. 

In summary, many research studies have analyzed the college student population to learn about their food behaviors. Females tend to be more aware of their body and have more knowledge of healthy eating in order to live healthier lives. In contrast, males seemingly are not as conscious of healthy eating behavior and the detrimental effects of eating foods high in fat, exercising less, and consuming large amounts of alcohol. Learning about the gender differences and habits of college students can be useful to practitioners in identifying effective ways to change lifestyle habits for the better. 


This current study examined the differences between male and female college students' health habits, including eating and being physically active on a regular basis. This study used a descriptive design to obtain data using a self-report survey approach. A nonrandom method of convenience sampling was used to obtain information from the participants. The convenience sample was selected from classrooms, computer labs, and dining facilities at the university. Because a convenience sample was used, the generalizability of the findings will be limited. The survey included four sections. The first section requested demographic information including age, gender, ethnicity, and educational background. Section two of the survey gathered data regarding participants overall eating habits and food selection. Section three focused on questions about physical activity. The final section included miscellaneous questions that gathered data such as sleeping patterns and overall motivation to live healthy lifestyles. 

The independent variable in this study examined college students' healthy habits. The dependent variables included gender, lifestyle, and environment.



The sample consisted of 18 college males and 23 college females enrolled at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The majority of the male participants were of African American descent (76%). The majority of the female participants were in the freshman class (57%). Participants were selected based upon accessibility, and data were gathered during class hours as well as after school hours at various locations on campus (See Table 1).

Table 1: Sample Characteristics               

AGE N 100%   N 100%
18 6 33%   5 22%
19 4 22%   5 22%
20 3 17%   6 6%
21 4 22%   3 13%
Other 1 6%   4 17%
Freshman 6 33%   13 57%
Sophomore 4 22%   3 13%
Junior 5 28%   5 22%
Senior 3 17%   2 9%
Black/African American 14 76%   10 43%
White/Caucasian 2 11%   2 9%
Biracial 1 6%   5 22%
Spanish/Hispanic 1 6%   2 9%

Eating Habits

Eating habits consist of the choices participants made in regard to where they eat, how much they eat, and why they make these decisions. The majority of the male participants ate 1-2 portions of vegetables a day (67%), while the female participants ate no vegetables on a typical day (39%).  However, the majority of female participants incorporated about 1-2 fruits a day (48%).  Less than 10 percent of both males and females ate more than 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day. About half of the male participants ate at the UMES dining hall 5 or more times a week. The majority of the male participants made their food choices based on time and convenience (31%), while the majority of females chose foods based on taste (32%). The majority of the females said they did not read the nutrition facts labels when choosing foods (70%). Half of the male participants said they read food labels (see Table 2). 

Table 2. Eating Habits

  Males   Females
Survey Questions Survey Response Results   Results
1. How many portions of vegetables do you eat a day? None 5 27%   9 39%
1-2 12 67%   4 17%
3-4 6 6%   8 38%
5+ 0 0%   2 9%
2. How many portions of fruit do you eat a day? None 4 22%   7 30%
1-2 10 56%   11 48%
3-4 3 17%   3 13%
5+ 1 6%   2 9%
3. How often do you eat at the UMES dining hall? Black/African American 0-1 times/week 5 28%   8 35%
2-4 times/week 4 22%   9 39%
5+ times/week 9 50%   6 26%
4. What is your typical beverage of choice? Water 11 50%   8 32%
Milk 1 5%   4 17%
Fruit Juice 5 23%   4 17%
Gatorade 2 9%   4 17%
Other 3 14%   4 17%
5. What are your reasons for the eating choices you make? Money 5 19%   5 20%
Time/ Convenience 8 31%   6 24%
Taste 3 12%   8 32%
Availability 6 23%   4 16%
Other 4 15%   2 8%
6. Do you read the Nutrition Facts labels when choosing foods? Yes 9 50%   7 30%
No 9 50%   16 70%

Physical Activity

Physical activity can consist of a number of exercise choices. Forty-two percent of the female participants engaged in physical activity about 3-4 days a week (42%), and 46 percent of the males participated in exercise 1-2 days a week. About half of all the participants typically exercised about 30 minutes to an hour. Both males (36%) and females (31%) exercised to maintain their body image (See Table 3).

Table 3. Physical Activity

  Males   Females
Survey Questions Survey Response Results   Results
1. How many days in a week do you participate in physical activity? None 3 18%   5 21%
1-2 days 8 46%   4 17%
3-4 days 3 18%   10 42%
5+ days 3 18%   4 17%
2. How long is the duration of your physical activity of choice? None 3 17%   1 4%
30 mins. or less 3 17%   5 22%
30 mins. -1hour 8 44 %   11 48%
1 hour+ 4 22%   6 26%
3. How intense would you rate your physical activity choice? Light 4 22%   7 33%
Moderate 9 50%   8 38%
Vigorous 5 28%   6 29%
4. What motivates you to exercise? (check all that apply) Not Motivated 3 9%   5 17%
Body Image 12 36%   9 31%
Peer Pressure/ Social Media 2 6%   2 7%
Healthy Risks 6 18%   7 24%
Enjoyment 10 10%   6 21%


The purpose of this study was to investigate the habits of college males and females in regard to eating and exercising. We hypothesized that female college students would exhibit more healthy habits. This notion was based upon the fact that females are more concerned about body image and are generally more interested in nutrition education. This hypothesis was not supported. 

Similar to the study conducted by Monteiro, Seremic, and Budden (2010), less than half of the students met the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Franciscy, McArthur, and Holbert (2004) concluded that college students were nutritionally vulnerable because their diets were often low in energy, fiber, calcium, iron, Vitamin A, carotenoids, and high in fat.  Monteiro, Seremic, and Budden (2010) also found that appearance was a motivator to encourage male and female college students to develop proper nutrition habits. Although our study did not confirm that college males had a poor knowledge about healthy food habits, it did verify that college males read the nutritional labels more than college females. Although the current study's findings were based upon a small sample of participants, the findings were consistent in that college students seek convenience when making food choices (Monteiro, Seremic, & Budden, 2010). Contrary to Bothmer and Fridlund's (2005) study, males possessed more healthy habits and choices than females in regards to eating more fruits and vegetables, selecting healthy beverages, participating in recommended physical activity, and reading nutrition labels.


This study was limited by its small sample size. The sample size could have been expanded by including a variety of students from all classifications. Also, self-report questionnaires alone are not always reliable; a greater depth of information may have been obtained by conducting physical exams of the participants. Measurement of height, weight, BMI, glucose levels, and blood pressure levels would have provided some concrete data about individuals' health habits. Future research could focus on a cross-national study involving other Historically Black Colleges and Universities students and their health status and habits.


Branen, Laurel & Fletcher, Janice. (1999). Comparison of College Students Current Eating Habits and Recollections of their Childhood Food Practices. Journal of Nutrition Education, Nov/Dec 1999): 304-310.    

Bothmer, M. I., & Frindlund, B. (2005). Gender differences in health habits and in motivation for a healthy lifestyle among Swedish university students. Nursing and Health Sciences7, 107-118.

Despande, S., Basil, M. D., & Basil, D. Z. (2009). Factors influencing healthy eating habits among college students: An application of the health belief model. Health Marketing Quarterly26, 145-164.

Franciscy, D. M., McArthur, L. H., & Holbert, D. (2004). College men and their interest in food purchasing and food preparation. Journal of Family And Consumer Science96(2), 28.

Misra, R. (2007). Knowledge, attitudes, and label use among college students. Journal of the American Dietetic Association107(12), 2130-33.

Monteiro, A. C., Jeremic, M., & Budden, M. C. (2010). Can we have fries with that, please? nutrition and physical activities among college students. Contemporary Issues in Education Research3(11), 1.

Soliah, L., Walter, J., & Antosh, D. (2006). Quantifying the impact of food preparation skills among college women. College Student Journal40(4), 729.


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