Alcohol intake does not influence body weight or diet in the first six months of an undergraduate starting university



Background:  Weight gain in the first year of university has been consistently reported in the USA. In a recent study, moderate-risk drinkers had a greater increase in BMI during the first semester than low-risk or non-drinkers. Moderate-risk drinkers were also more likely to be overweight compared with low-risk drinkers or non-drinkers (Lloyd-Richardson et al., 2008). However, there has been limited research on British students to date. The aim of this study was to investigate whether alcohol intake affected weight or diet in a sample of first year British university students.

Methods:  An observational prospective cohort study was conducted using a random sample of undergraduate students; randomisation was achieved by approaching every third person on the main university campus to request participation in the study. Participants completed a validated food frequency questionnaire (EPIC-Norfolk, Date Unknown) to assess alcohol intake and diet prior to university and 6 months later. Nutrients were analysed using McCance and Widdowson's: The Composition of Food (2002) and Food Portion Sizes (Crawley, 1994). An analysis of all major macronutrients was undertaken as well as salt and fruit and vegetable intake. Weight and height were measured to assess change in body weight and body mass index. Data analysis was undertaken using excel and SPSS (version 17.0). Change in body weight, dietary intake and alcohol units per week were analysed using paired t-tests to identify within subject difference. Independent t-tests were used to analyse gender differences in weight gain and alcohol intake. Spearman's rank and/or Pearson's correlation co-efficient were used to test the relationship between alcohol intake and change in body weight, dependent on data distribution. Ethical approval was granted by the University of Plymouth's ethics committee.

Results:  Twenty participants enrolled at baseline and 15 completed both stages of the study. Of the participants who completed both stages of the study, eight were male and seven were female. Mean age of participants was 19.3 years. Eleven students increased their alcohol intake and 13 gained weight. Alcohol intake increased by 19.6 (25.1) units per week (P = 0.009) and weight increased by 1.99 (3.08) kg (P = 0.03). Increase in alcohol intake was significantly higher in males compared with females [39.8 (29.2) units per week and 5.6 (7.6) units per week respectively (P = 0.04). Weight gain was significantly higher in females than males 3.40 (3.09) kg and 0.73 (2.51) kg respectively]. Alcohol intake was not associated with weight gain in this population sample. There were no significant differences between daily total energy, carbohydrate, fat, protein or salt intake at baseline compared to follow-up; the differences were −37.1 (1071.6) kcal; −23.1 (169.5) g; −5.5 (41.5) g; −11.9 (30.0 g); −1.48 (3.7) g respectively. Fruit and vegetable intake decreased by 2.6 (3.4 portions per day (P = 0.01).

Discussion:  Findings from the present study support the trend in student weight gain documented elsewhere (Lloyd-Richardson et al., 2008). Unexpectedly, an increase in alcohol intake was not associated with weight gain in the population studied, which is inconsistent with previous findings (Economas, 2008). However, limitations include a small sample size and potential reporting bias. Therefore, results may not be representative of student populations elsewhere. The observed weight gain could be explained by under reporting or differences in physical activity. Further research with a more comprehensive alcohol estimation questionnaire is recommended to support this evidence. Education about healthy eating and alcohol consumption may also benefit the student population.

Conclusions:  The observed weight gain in the first 6 months of university was not associated with the observed increase in alcohol intake.

References:  Crawley, H. (1994) Food Portion Sizes, 2 edn. London: Stationary Office Books.

Economos, C.D. Hildebrandt, M.L. & Hyatt, R.R. (2008) College freshman stress and weight change: differences by gender. Am. J. Health Behav.32, 16–25.

EPIC-Norfolk (Date unknown) ‘Food Frequency Questionnaire’. Available at: (Acessed 20 September 2009).

Lloyd-Richardson, E.E., Lucero, M.L., DiBello, J.R., Jacobson, A.E. & Wing, R.R. (2008) The relationship between alcohol use, eating habits and weight change in college freshmen. Eating Behav.9, 504–508.

McCance & Widdowson (2002) The Composition of food, 6 edn. UK: Food Standards Agency. Royal Society of Chemistry.