Freshman year of college brings a host of new stresses and stimuli: an unfamiliar environment, challenging courses, and—cue the music—freedom! This is every bit as liberating as it’s cracked up to be, but while we’re distracted by all that independent decision making, extra weight tends to creep up on many of us between Welcome Week and spring break.
“It’s like the perfect storm,” says Suzanne Girard Eberle, a sports dietician, nutrition therapist, and author of Endurance Sport Nutrition, Second Edition. “Several factors come together at the same time that cause many people to gain weight.”
Not Exactly Fifteen
Let’s start with the good news. Contrary to the catchy alliteration, most frosh don’t actually pack on a full fifteen pounds—studies show it’s closer to eight, says Eberle.
Better than fifteen? Sure. But students are still coming home for the summer carrying extra weight—most of the time from unhealthy habits, which usually lead to more weight gain down the road. What are the behaviors that cause us to pack on pounds as freshman?
Eating More …
Going away to college is synonymous with freedom—the freedom to study what we want, hang out with whom we want, date, and, yep, eat whenever and however much we want. Parents aren’t there reminding us to eat our veggies before digging into dessert, or taking the time to make sure we get our protein in addition to the pile of mashed potatoes we heap on our plates: “Many students don’t have any practice in portion control and eating foods they like in moderation,” says Eberle. Got an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, like I did? The all-you-can-eat mentality, while we may feel like we’re getting a better deal to eat more, only packs unneeded food into our bodies, which is then quickly stored as fat.
… or Just More Junk
Being a kid in a candy store is nothing compared with being a freshman in an open-til-2-a.m. dining hall. Add swipe cards stocked with a year’s worth of funds to the loads of temptations at our fingertips (plus a tendency to come home, well, a bit tipsy), and we’re left with a recipe for weight gain and developing unhealthy eating habits. “The food in my dining hall consisted of french fries, burgers, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s,” says Amber Smith. “The healthy area was a small salad bar with wilted lettuce and out-of-season fruit.” With choices like that, it’s tough to say no to a warm and satisfying slice of pizza. And unlike in Mom’s kitchen, the all-hours access makes a food run an all-too-easy study break.
Lack of Structure
Without the daily routine of classes, after-school sports, and family dinner, I personally found myself snacking more often in college. “Going to college really is a significant lifestyle change,” says Eberle. “There was probably more structure at home with the parents.” Suddenly I was stopping into a friend’s room for a 3 p.m. candy fix, or hanging out with a boy after dinner and popping Easy Mac into his dorm-room microwave. And let’s not even discuss what I ate after coming home from a night out. (Let’s just say I became well acquainted with San Diego’s late-night Mexican food offerings.) “We need a mind adjustment in how we think about snacks,” says Eberle. She suggests thinking of them as mini-meals, which should consist of wholesome fare from all the food groups, instead of grab-and-go, sweet, processed food–like substances.
Newfound freedom is also laden with psychological pressures, like homesickness and high stress, which often lead us toward less-than-healthy habits. Our bodies crave comfort and energy, steering us toward the nearest, easiest energy source (translation: the most sugary, simple carb– and fat-ridden food available).
Lack of Activity
Sure, getting decked out for a toga party qualifies as an activity, but we’re talking physical activity here. Many of us packed our college applications with varsity letters, only to arrive at a school where the closest we get to a gym is at basketball playoff games. Afternoons that used to be filled with track practice or soccer drills are now packed with studying in the library, sitting in lecture, and mixing in some daytime TV for a mental break. In reality, there’s no better time to start developing some self-motivated physical activity. Walking around campus counts (so avoid that free cross-campus shuttle), along with, of course, hitting the gym. (And hey, who says workouts can’t coincide with the hot soccer team’s daily weight-training session?) Take advantage of those state-of-the-art workout facilities, try a physical education class, or join a running group. (Remember, at no other time will a gym membership be this cheap.)
Just about all freshmen (parents, look away here), even those who were rule followers in high school, find themselves partaking in social drinking at least occasionally. Sure, it may not feel fattening to sip a beer in that cute outfit while flirting with the guy from Chem 101, but a light beer is the least of our worries when it comes to alcoholic party fare. Start with a one-hundred-calorie shot, then add a soda or juice mixer, and you’ve jumped to three hundred calories (those red plastic drink cups at keggers fit an awful lot of liquid). Multiply that by the amount of drinks we consume in a night, and, well, you’re nearing half (to maybe all) of your daily caloric needs. Yikes. Maybe they should start including that information in those “say no to drinking” commercials.
And don’t even think about trying to compensate by starving during the day and bingeing on alcohol and junk at night: “This type of diet math never works out,” says Eberle. “Your body always overcompensates, making you hungrier than before.”
Oh, and nonalcoholic beverages count, too. You know all those frappes you guzzle while poring over the books? They count as a dessert.
While there are, of course, many bigger issues in college to worry about than the number you see on the scale, no one wants to return home that first summer feeling physically unfit or insecure about her weight. Enjoy all the college milestones you can, but make practicing moderation part of that whole learning-experience thing—finding balance that makes you feel good, smart, and strong.