WASHINGTON _ Too often, college women make poor decisions that could hurt their health long after they graduate, say health experts.
Bad choices in college — like smoking, especially when combined with birth control pills, fatty diets and inactivity — could cause heart disease and death later in life, according to doctors and fitness experts at a panel discussion hosted by Women of Washington, Inc., a women's networking group.
“It really is like putting money in the bank,” said Elizabeth Ross, author of “Healing the Female Heart.” “If you practice unhealthy lifestyles when you're young. You're going to have poor health when you're older.”
Women are especially prone to cardiovascular disease, which has killed more females than males every year since 1984, according to the American Stroke Association.
Women also face additional risks that do not affect men, according to the American Heart Association. For example, a woman’s risk of high blood pressure and stroke increases during pregnancy. And birth control pills can increase the risk of a stroke or heart attack when combined with smoking or high blood pressure.
“Smoking and birth control pills are a particularly dangerous combination for women,” Ross said. “It can cause heart attacks in women who otherwise would never have had them.”
Companies market cigarettes to women by selling them in pastel packages and describing the cigarettes with catchy terms like “slims” and “lights,” according to the American Heart Association.
“We're seeing more and more college age women smoking to the point that 40 percent of women entering college are smokers,” Ross said.
And the overwhelming reason they do it is to be thin, she said.
“They want to look like Kate Moss,” she said. “They want to be thin. But being thin does not equal being healthy.”
Smoking puts added strain on the heart because it causes vessels to clamp down or constrict. It also makes the heart beat faster, causing high blood pressure and reduced blood flow. In addition, it increases the amount of carbon monoxide in the blood, taking oxygen away from muscles like the heart, according to the American Heart Association.
Many college women use smoking not only to curb their appetite, but pair it with an unhealthy diet. These diets usually include lots of soda to keep their energy up, said Char Kopchick, director of health education and wellness at Ohio University.
“A woman coming into a college environment is initially worried about fitting in. They hear that the more attractive you are, the better you fit in,” Kopchick said. “They think it's very important to look a certain way.”
For the first few years of college, many women live in same-sex dorms, a situation that can lead to more of a push for weight loss, Kopchick said.
“Women also don't realize the effect their behavior has on others when they live together. If a thin roommate is saying ‘I'm fat,' many girls are saying ‘Oh my goodness, if she thinks she looks fat, can you imagine what they think of me?'” Kopchick said.
“A lot of people want to point the finger at men for weight issues. But we are our own worst enemy in perpetuating a bad self image.” She added, “You have to look at weight loss as striking a balance in your life. It's about making wise food choices.”
And college women need to make wise choices. But they can take care of the body and the heart with one diet, said Ron Goor, author of “Eater's Choice: A Food Lovers Guide to Lower Cholesterol.”
“The same basic diet, low in saturated fat and high in vegetables, will reduce weight and keep your heart healthy,” said Goor. “You can eat well — really well — reduce cholesterol and lose weight.”
Other food suggestions, according to Goor, that are good for the heart and the waist:
- Cut fruits and veggies into small pieces for snacks.
- Don't use butter or salt on popcorn.
- At the salad bar, go cold turkey — it's a low-fat meat.
- Switch to spicy foods, like mustard and onion on a chicken sandwich instead of mayonnaise.
“Eating habits when you're young can take their toll when you are older,” said Ross, the cardiologist. “If you live on fries and coke, you are not going to have a healthy body. You're going to have unhealthy muscle, and your heart is just a muscle.”