Black and Native American students are especially at risk, according to Northwestern University researchers, who analyzed data gathered from more than 30,000 college students nationwide in 2010.
The study found that 95 percent of college students don't eat the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables (at least five servings a day), and more than 60 percent don't get the recommended levels of weekly physical activity -- at least three vigorous workouts of 20 minutes minimum or five moderate workouts of 30 minutes minimum.
Race was also a factor in unhealthy habits, which included obesity, tobacco use and binge drinking.
Among the findings:
- White students had the highest rate of binge drinking (37.5 percent), while Asian students had the highest rate of physical inactivity (74.6 percent).
- Black students had the highest rate of inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption (98.1 percent), but the lowest rates of tobacco use (13.6 percent) and binge drinking (17.1 percent).
- Native American students had the highest rate of overweight/obesity (51.4 percent).
The researchers also found that tobacco use was linked with overweight/obesity among black students.
"Tobacco use and obesity are two health issues that have been vying in the last five years for first place as the major health problem in the United States," study author Joseph Kang, an assistant professor in preventive medicine-biostatistics at the university's Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a university news release. "It's frightening that those behaviors seem to co-occur in black students."
He and his colleagues were also alarmed to find that Native Americans were the only racial group in which students reported all five types of unhealthy behaviors, according to the study, which was published recently online in the journal Preventive Medicine.
"Changing unhealthy behaviors in college students now could be a way to reduce the risk of cancer as well as other diseases later in life," study principal investigator Brian Hitsman, an assistant professor in preventive medicine-behavioral medicine and psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at the university, said in the news release.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the number of new cases of cancer is projected to increase 45 percent by 2030 and replace heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. The study authors noted that if large numbers of college students continue to have unhealthy habits, that rate could rise even higher. They added that it's important to learn more about how race and ethnicity affect health behaviors in college students.
"There are major cancer disparities both in terms of risk, morbidity and mortality with racial and ethnic minorities in the United States," Hitsman noted. "In this study, we see some of these behavioral risk factors already starting in young adulthood. Future research should monitor the persistence of cancer risk behavior clustering by race and ethnicity."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about college students' health.