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J Am Diet Assoc. 2008 Oct;108(10):1708-1715. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.07.007.

Weight gain prevention: identifying theory-based targets for health behavior change in young adults.

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Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.


Young adults attending college are more vulnerable to weight gain than the general population. We sought to identify health behavior change targets related to weight management in college students. Based on the Social Cognitive Theory model for health behavior change, we investigated the health-related lifestyle behaviors and physiological characteristics of this population. Forty-three college students (18.3+/-0.1 years) completed a series of quantitative assessments (eg, body weight and composition, cardiorespiratory fitness, and diet and activity habits) and structured qualitative assessments (ie, structured interview or focus group). Participants were predominantly normal weight (mean body mass index 22.2+/-0.4) and fit (maximal oxygen consumption 50.5+/-1.5 mL/kg/minute). However, healthful eating and physical activity were not considered high priorities, despite having ample free time, high exercise self-efficacy, positive outcome expectations for exercise, and a desire to exercise more. Participants reported that regularly engaging in exercise was difficult. This may have been due to poor planning/time management, satisfaction with body image, lack of accountability, and feelings of laziness. Dietary patterns generally met recommendations but were low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Social support for exercise and healthful dietary habits were important factors associated with health behaviors. Students reported a decline in exercise and dietary habits relative to high school, which may have contributed to college weight gain. Our results suggest that this population may not have adequate self-regulatory skills, such as planning and self-monitoring, to maintain healthful behaviors in the college environment. Food and nutrition professionals working with young adults attending college may use these findings to guide the behavioral therapy component of their weight management medical nutrition therapy goals and outcomes.

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