Changes in eating habits and activity level are the twin culprits that cause college students to gain weight during their freshman year. Dorm dining halls offer meal plans with unlimited access to a variety of high calorie, high fat foods, and many students trade the after-school sports activities of their high school years for long, sedentary hours in the library.
Students can gain 15 pounds the first year simply by eating or drinking 210 calories extra per day. Dessert, soda and beer will quickly add pounds. For instance, a 12-ounce glass of soda has about 150 calories, as does a 12-ounce can of beer. A single teaspoon of butter or margarine can add 100 calories to a meal.
It's No Myth
"I have counseled enough students over the last few years to know that the Freshman 15 is not a myth," said Kate Cerulli, MS, RD, LD, the university dietitian at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD. "Many students have told me that it really should be called the Freshman 25."
Cerulli encourages students to look at the menus ahead of time and build their meals around vegetables, chicken, fish and beans rather than fried foods, burgers and desserts. They should resist treating each meal as an "all-you-can-eat" experience, and watch portion sizes and calories from beverages.
Tami Best, RD, a nutrition specialist with University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina, estimated that up to 75 percent of college students will experience some weight gain their freshman year of college as they cope with a heavy academic load, a new social life and being away from home for the first time. A fully stocked cafeteria, alcohol consumption, numerous snacking opportunities, and decreased activity all contribute to weight gain, she said.
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Several colleges are addressing the problem of freshman weight gain head-on by hiring nutritionists and dietitians to meet with students and help them make healthy food choices. For instance, Rutgers University's Healthy Dining Team suggests that students consider the following guidelines when selecting their meals:
- Choose baked, broiled or grilled meats or poultry.
- Avoid breaded items such as chicken nuggets or patties.
- Include high fiber foods in each meal such as whole-grain cereal or bread, legumes and vegetables. Fiber fills you up without adding extra calories or fat.
- Limit foods with cheese sauces, cream sauces, dressings or gravies because these contribute to extra pounds but not extra nutrients.
- Taste food before adding salt, as salt is usually added during the cooking process.
- Choose fruit as a snack or part of the meal.
- Limit high fat spreads such as mayonnaise, butter and cream cheese.
- Drink water or low fat milk instead of soda, juice and fruit drinks.
- Frozen yogurt may be a good low fat dessert choice, but candy and chocolate sauce add unnecessary calories.
The Midnight Munchies
Overeating in the dining hall isn't the only trouble spot for students. Snacking while studying, late night pizza parties and drinking alcohol all contribute to weight gain.
Maria Walls, RD, Manager of Program Development for Weight Watchers International, notes that when freshman arrive on campus, they're often not thinking about calories. They see pizza and beer as part of the college experience, not the first step toward unwanted weight gain.
"The key is to plan your meals and snacks," Walls said. "Instead of opening a bag of candy or chips or ordering pizza, students should stock up on single-serve packs of cookies, candy or cereal and have them on hand." Raisin boxes, fresh fruit, baby carrots and individual servings of canned fruit or applesauce also make good portion-controlled snacks.
Walls stressed that students should think about what they are going to eat rather than just helping themselves to the most attractive dish as they move through the cafeteria line. Cereal and milk, fruit, low fat yogurt with granola, or whole-wheat toast with low fat cream cheese are offered at virtually every breakfast, and are a good alternative to a cheese omelet with bacon. She allows that students can continue to enjoy the foods they love, but if they choose a high fat entrée at lunch, for instance, they should balance it with low fat choices at dinner.
Exercise is Key
Students should remember that although colleges offer all-you-can-eat, they also offer all-you-can-exercise. Classes such as aerobics, swimming and tennis are included in the course schedules at many schools, and most colleges have gyms, playing fields and tracks. Inline skating, biking or simply walking around on campus will help keep pounds off.
"Many freshmen don't make use of the gym facilities, but a lot of schools offer tennis and squash courts, swimming pools and yoga classes," Walls said. "Walking is the easiest exercise of all. Students should make a point of walking around campus and to classes whenever possible."
Susan Hurd, RD, a nutritionist with Wood Dining Services, holds programs in college dining halls during mealtimes to show students healthy dining hall options and encourage them to exercise more.
"The majority of students who gain weight in the first year tended to be more active in high school," Hurd observed. "Many do not play sports in college, and that, coupled with the freedom to pick whatever they want to eat, contributes to weight gain. Over the course of several months, their weight will go up."
Once they recognize that they are gaining weight, many students make an effort to lose it through a variety of strategies including changing their eating habits, exercising more, and even moving off campus in order to better control their menus. As a last resort, one woman reported taking a summer job as a counselor at a "lose weight" camp to combat her own freshman weight gain, noting that losing the weight was such hard work that she remained vigilant for the rest of her years at college.
"The dining hall offers a buffet style service for convenience, but research has shown that this type of service increases consumption of food and beverages," cautions the Rutgers University's Healthy Dining Team. "The responsibility to make wiser food choices is in your hands."
Lisa R. Van Wagner