College-based obesity prevention educational interventions

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

College-based obesity prevention educational interventions are multi-component efforts that provide education about nutrition, physical activity, and healthy weight management; such interventions are often paired with campus environment improvements. Interventions also frequently include self-monitoring, goal setting, and social support components, as well as opportunities for physical activity. College-based obesity prevention educational interventions can be delivered via web-based platforms, in-person interactions, group lectures and handouts, or tailored personal counseling1, 2.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Improved dietary habits

  • Increased physical activity

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved physical fitness

  • Improved weight status

  • Improved health-related knowledge

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that college-based obesity prevention educational interventions improve dietary habits1, 2, 3, 4 and increase physical activity1, 5. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, particularly over the long term, and to understand which intervention components are most effective1, 3, 5.

College-based obesity prevention programs increase physical activity and physical fitness in the short-term, but gains appear to fade over time51, 6. Online obesity prevention interventions with social media and email components may prevent weight gain among college freshman78 and increase healthy weight management behaviors among students throughout college9. However, additional research is needed to understand the effects of college-based obesity prevention interventions on weight-related outcomes1, 9, 10.   

Successful college-based obesity prevention interventions appear to combine personalized nutrition and physical activity counseling with environmental changes10. Evaluations of Project WebHealth suggest that online interventions may improve weight-related behaviors among college students, and that tailoring interventions for males and females may increase effects11.

Nutrition interventions conducted in person may be more effective than interventions conducted online, especially if in-person efforts include self-monitoring and goal setting components4. Web-based nutrition education programs for college students may increase nutrition knowledge12. When combined with nutrition education, food environment interventions such as price decreases for healthy foods, increases in healthy food options, nutrition labels, and efforts to control portion size for unhealthy foods improve dietary habits among college students3, 4.

Experts suggest including eating disorder interventions and healthy weight management programs as part of college-based obesity prevention interventions to reduce eating disorders, unhealthy weight control practices, and obesity among college students13. Such combined interventions appear to have greater effects for female college students with higher BMIs and more eating disorder symptoms than females with lower BMIs and fewer eating disorder symptoms14.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

Colleges and universities across the country are implementing various nutrition, physical activity, and healthy weight management education interventions, often through their university or campus health and wellness departments, including health promotion programs, wellness education websites, self-help tips, and counseling services for their students. For example, Great Value Colleges highlights 30 colleges and universities for their efforts to promote healthy living on campus15.

Implementation Resources

USDA-Nutrition at college - United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Agricultural Library. Food and nutrition information center: Nutrition at college.

CDC-College health - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). College health and safety.


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1 Plotnikoff 2015 - Plotnikoff RC, Costigan SA, Williams RL, et al. Effectiveness of interventions targeting physical activity, nutrition and healthy weight for university and college students: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2015;12(1):45.

2 Lua 2012 - Lua PL, Wan Putri Elena WD. The impact of nutrition education interventions on the dietary habits of college students in developed nations: A brief review. Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences. 2012;19(1):4-14.

3 Roy 2015 - Roy R, Kelly B, Rangan A, Allman-Farinelli M. Food environment interventions to improve the dietary behavior of young adults in tertiary education settings: A systematic literature review. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015;115(10):1647-1681.e1.

4 Kelly 2013 - Kelly NR, Mazzeo SE, Bean MK. Systematic review of dietary interventions with college students: Directions for future research and practice. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2013;45(4):304-313.

5 CG-Physical activity - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Physical activity.

6 Hivert 2007 - Hivert M-F, Langlois M-F, Bérard P, Cuerrier J-P, Carpentier A. Prevention of weight gain in young adults through a seminar-based intervention program. International Journal of Obesity. 2007;31(8):1262–9.

7 Gow 2010 - Gow RW, Trace SE, Mazzeo SE. Preventing weight gain in first year college students: An online intervention to prevent the “freshman fifteen.” Eating Behaviors. 2010;11(1):33–9.

8 Levitsky 2006 - Levitsky D, Garay J, Nausbaum M, Neighbors L, DellaValle D. Monitoring weight daily blocks the freshman weight gain: A model for combating the epidemic of obesity. International Journal of Obesity. 2006;30(6):1003–10.

9 West 2016 - West DS, Monroe CM, Turner-McGrievy G, et al. A technology-mediated behavioral weight gain prevention intervention for college students: Controlled, quasi-experimental study. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2016;18(6):e133.

10 Gudzune 2013 - Gudzune K, Hutfless S, Maruthur N, Wilson R, Segal J. Strategies to prevent weight gain in workplace and college settings: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine. 2013;57(4):268-277.

11 Dour 2013 - Dour CA, Horacek TM, Schembre SM, et al. Process evaluation of Project WebHealth: A nondieting web-based intervention for obesity prevention in college students. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2013;45(4):288-295.

12 Watt 2006 - Watt M, Franko DL, Cunningham JA, et al. Benefits of web-based nutrition education for college students. American Public Health Association (APHA) 134th Annual Meeting and Exposition, November 4-8 2006.

13 Kass 2017 - Kass AE, Jones M, Kolko RP, et al. Universal prevention efforts should address eating disorder pathology across the weight spectrum: Implications for screening and intervention on college campuses. Eating Behaviors. 2017;25:74-80.

14 Stice 2013 - Stice E, Rohde P, Shaw H, Marti CN. Efficacy trial of a selective prevention program targeting both eating disorders and obesity among female college students: 1- and 2-year follow-up effects. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2013;81(1):183-189.

15 Kratsas-Healthy living on campus - Kratsas G. 30 great schools promoting healthy living on campus. Great Value Colleges.