A Whole Foods marketing brochure aimed at college students. Todd Eytan, Flickr CC.
A Whole Foods marketing brochure aimed at college students. Todd Eytan, Flickr CC.


Even though people tend to think of pizza, beer, and the “Freshman 15” when they think of college students’ health, attending college seems to promote healthy behaviors that decrease the likelihood of obesity. Healthy habits developed during the college years tend to last a longtime. Furthermore, people with a college education tend to have better resources and habits for preventing obesity. But if college can curb the chances of obesity, does the timing of a higher education matter?

Researchers Miech, Shanahan, Boardman, and Bauldry test whether completing a college degree before or after getting married or having children impacts obesity outcomes. They report that, overall, having children or marrying before attending college are strong predictors for obesity; those who attend college first are less likely to become obese.

The researchers use nationally representative survey data that follows the same people from adolescence to young adulthood. First, they categorize the Body Mass Indices (BMI) of the survey respondents who went to college as either “Obese” or “Not obese.” Then they compare whether respondents were obese during adolescence versus adulthood to account for respondents who were already obese before making a life course transition. Finally, they compare both sets of BMIs for those who were married or had children before going to college with those who attended college first.

As predicted, respondents who married before completing college had 65% higher odds of becoming obese than those who went to college first. Additionally, those who had children before college were more likely to become obese than those who waited until after completing a degree. Interestingly, the order of events mostly impacts black males, which skews the results and makes the association look more predictive across race and gender. The researchers find that the sequencing effects of college and marriage and parenthood are the strongest for black males.

Young adults who have formed their health habits in college seem less prone to change diet and exercise during marriage and parenthood. The authors give several possible explanations, including the notion that transitioning to the new role of “spouse” or “parent” can make young people more likely to eat regular meals, exercise less, and quit smoking—all of which contribute to weight gain.