By Rachel Johnson, Ph.D, M.P.H., R.D.
You can hear the lament across college campuses everywhere: “My pants barely fit now.” “I can’t believe how much weight I’ve gained.” “What’s happening to my body?”
I remember the Freshman 15 all too well from my own student days. During my first week as a student at Penn State, I realized that I could eat as many glazed doughnuts as I wanted and nobody, including my mother, could tell me no. The independence was liberating. The consequence of my poor choices, however, was not.
So I wasn’t surprised when the subject of campus weight gain came up in a talk with my son Ben and his girlfriend, Heidi, setting off to Montana for college. A runner with healthy food habits, she sighed, “I’m resigned to it. From everything I’ve read, putting on weight my first semester is inevitable.”
She may be right: a report from Washington University found that, during the first two years of college, 70 percent of students studied gained an average of nine pounds. Although the “15” may be an exaggeration, most new students do gain weight.
Why? What’s going on in the utopian world of the ivory towers?
Making the transition from home to college is a dramatic shift of environment and circumstances. Such large life changes (marriage, having a baby, quitting smoking, going through menopause) often include the unwelcome side effect of added pounds.
Contemplating this whole phenomenon, I made a call to David Levitsky, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, who has tracked the amount of weight students gain during their first semester. He finds it astounding, considering how unusual it is over a person’s lifespan to put on so many pounds over such a short period of time. Some of the blame may lie in unlimited offerings in dining halls, he says. In order to compete for the best and brightest, most colleges and universities provide all-you-can-eat buffets with serve-yourself soda fountains and make-your-own sundae bars. Payment is painless: just swipe your I.D. card.
Studies show that the availability of all-you-can-eat food at a fixed price results in the “buffet syndrome”: the more variety of food we are presented with, the less likely we are to tire of the taste and curb our eating. In one study, people ate 15 percent more when offered three shapes of pasta compared to when they had only one.
Levitsky adds that frequent late-night snacking is one of the major predictors of weight gain in Cornell freshmen—midnight pizza and subs are the traditional downfall. Refuel with these easy, quick and healthy snack recipes.
Alcohol also likely plays a role, although because the research relies on students’ self-reported data, its contribution is difficult to quantify. (When I asked my college-age sons about student weight issues, they quickly agreed on the culprit: beer.)
On top of all this, many students become less active. Most high school athletes won’t qualify for elite college teams, and few universities require physical education. Try these exercise tips for getting motivated.
Levitsky has conducted two studies that produced early promising results for college students. In one he used the fact that people who weigh themselves regularly are often more successful at losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight. A group of freshman students weighed themselves every morning and entered the results on a website run by Levitsky’s research group. The students received immediate feedback in the form of a weight-trend graph (but no coaching), giving them a sense of whether they were gaining or losing. Amazingly, the students who weighed themselves regularly had zero weight gain, while the control group with no intervention gained four to seven pounds.
The other successful technique was straightforward nutrition education. Students who attended two lessons on portion sizes gained zero pounds while the group with no lessons gained four to seven.
Weight gain happens to most of us at some time over our lives. But it’s important to remember that we have control over whether those pounds stick. If Heidi comes home in December lamenting a few added pounds, I’ll suggest that she weigh herself regularly, get enough sleep, cut back on some extras in her diet and enjoy lots of time outdoors in the mountains of Montana.
Rachel Johnson is senior nutrition advisor to EatingWell and dean of the University of Vermont College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.