Most 18-year-olds have heard about the ‘freshman 15’ – the 15-pound weight gain people are said to be at risk of gaining during their first year of college.
A number of studies show that it is actually closer to seven pounds with just 10 percent gaining the full 15.
However with growing rates of obesity in the United States, experts are urging students and parents to take a more proactive approach to learning a healthy lifestyle before heading off to school.
Jennifer Medina, a New York City dietitian and nutritionist who treats college students, warns that weight gain is not the only issue; there are also pressures to diet and stay thin while at university.
Ultimately, with college campuses rife with stress and sleep-deprivation, she says it can be hard for freshman to avoid developing unhealthy relationships with food.
Here Daily Mail Online looks at how unhealthy practices at college start and at how they can be curtailed.
Unhealthy habits: With college campuses being rife with stress and sleep-deprivation, freshman are finding themselves developing an unhealthy relationship with food and mealtime, much of which can be prevented with preparation (stock image)
‘Even if the studies refuting the freshman 15 are true, there’s still sense in trying to promote healthy eating during college,’ Medina, co-founder of Brown and Medina Nutrition told Daily Mail Online.
‘It’s the first year people are truly on their own and without their parents so they usually need some guidance.’
She explained there are a number of things that both new students and parents can do to avoid that weight gain.
BIGGEST CAUSES OF WEIGHT GAIN IN COLLEGE
Medina said a combination of alcohol, stress, change in diet, and lack of exercise can cause people to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. She says the biggest causes are:
- High calorie alcoholic drinks
- That teens are making decisions about what to eat for the first time
- Late night eating and snacking
- Lack of a set schedule and daily routine
- Cheap and poor quality cafeteria food
- Chronic stress
- Lack of sleep
‘Obviously we tell students not to drink until they are 21 and would never promote underage drinking,’ Medina said.
‘But we know it still happens and can be the biggest change causing weight gain when people first go to college – especially when it’s a lot of sugary drinks like beer and fruity cocktails.’
She also said that even when they aren’t guzzling their calories, college students have a tendency to snack late at night, and that when they do it’s typically unhealthy.
‘A lot of college dorms will even keep their dining halls open all night and have things like pizza and chicken tenders and fries available, and that’s what students are eating after already having had a full dinner,’ she said.
CHILDHOOD AND TEENAGE OBESITY EPIDEMIC IN THE UNITED STATES
Obesity is a growing epidemic across the country as nearly a third of children are obese or overweight, and are five times more likely to be obese as adults.
And the percent of teens that are overweight or obese has more than doubled in the past 30 years.
Nearly 12.5 million (17 percent) of American children between the ages of two and 19 are considered overweight according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Children are considered obese if their body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of weight in relation to height, falls at or above the 95th percentile on the CDC growth charts.
It can also be defined as weighing more than 20 percent above what is ideal for someone’s height and weight.
This would mean the child’s BMI is higher than 95 percent of other kids of the same age and sex, according to the agency.
Obesity early in life is linked to a series of health effects later in life, including heart disease and diabetes, and can even lower an individual’s life expectancy.
WHAT STUDENTS CAN DO
Though it’s easy to gain weight in college it’s not hard to avoid it, Medina said. Some of her tips include:
- Build a routine meal schedule to limit the need for binge eating or snacking
- Watch the number of calories people are drinking
- Try to eat something (even if it’s small) for breakfast every day
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes three times a week
- Don’t load up on carbs at the dining hall, instead try to have a carbohydrate as 1/4 of the meal, protein as 1/4 of the meal, and a non-starchy vegetable as one half of the meal
‘We recommend that people watch the number of calories they are drinking and consuming outside of mealtime,’ Medina explained.
‘But it’s also important for college students not to skip meals just so they can drink more of their calories because that can be really dangerous.
‘Some of the most important things to remember are to try to keep to a schedule and never let more than four hours go by without at least eating something small, because then that can cause [students] to binge eat.’
Medina said that as far as exercise goes it’s ideal that people are trying to get in some exercise multiple times a week.
Not only does the exercise burn calories, but it helps reduce stress.
‘I like to focus more on stress than calorie burn because at the end of the day I think that mental health is even more important on college campuses,’ she said.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Parents can play a role before children go to college by helping them learn to plan for their meals.
‘When kids first get to school sometimes if their diets were very controlled by their parents, then they have all this freedom and go into a kind of food rebellion,’ she said.
‘It’s fine that parents want their children to be healthy at home, but also students shouldn’t feel guilty when they have a dessert or a snack.’
- Gradually let your children have some autonomy in choosing their food
- Teach them about meal planning ahead of time so they are eating a balanced amount of vegetables, proteins and carbs
- Get them into exercise early
- Teach them mindfulness and tell them that if they are feeling overly stressed it’s OK to get help
Medina explained that the underlying advice is having open communication between parents and child.
‘If students have a little more say in what they are eating before they get to campus it might help them from overdoing it and being shocked by all of the newfound freedom,’ Medina explained.
College is a time of huge change for a student, she explained, and having some of those changes occur more slowly and over time can help them from going overboard when they get to school.