What's Behind First-Year Weight Gain?
Everyone's heard warnings about the "freshman 15." But is it true that many college students pack on 15 pounds during their first year at school?
Recent studies find that some first-year students are indeed likely to gain weight — but it might not be the full freshman 15 and it may not all happen during freshman year. That might sound like good news, but it's not. Doctors are concerned that students who gradually put on pounds are establishing a pattern of weight gain that could spell trouble if it continues.
Studies show that students on average gain 3 to 10 pounds during their first 2 years of college. Most of this weight gain occurs during the first semester of freshman year.
College offers many temptations. You're on your own and free to eat what you want, when you want it. You can pile on the portions in the dining hall, eat dinners of french fries and ice cream, and indulge in sugary and salty snacks to fuel late-night study sessions. In addition, you may not get as much exercise as you did in high school.
College is also a time of change, and the stress of acclimating to school can trigger overeating. People sometimes eat in response to anxiety, homesickness, sadness, or stress, and all of these can be part of adapting to being away at school.
Should I Worry About the Weight?
Some weight gain is normal as an adolescent body grows and metabolism shifts. But pronounced or rapid weight gain may become a problem.
Weight gain that pushes you above the body's normal range carries health risks. People who are overweight are more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, breathlessness, and joint problems. People who are overweight when they're younger have a greater likelihood of being overweight as adults. Poor diet and exercise habits in college can start you on a path that could later lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or obesity, and may increase your risk for developing certain cancers.
Even without weight gain, unhealthy food choices also won't give you the balance of nutrients you need to keep up with the demands of college. You may notice that your energy lags and your concentration and memory suffer. Studies have found that most students get fewer than the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
What If I Gain Weight?
If you do gain weight, don't freak out. Take a look at your eating and exercise habits and make adjustments. In a study in which freshmen gained 4 pounds in 12 weeks, the students were only eating an average of 174 extra calories each day. So cutting out one can of soda or a midnight snack every day and being more active will help you get back on track.
It may be tempting to go for the easy fix, like skipping meals or trying the latest fad diet. But these approaches don't work to keep weight off in the long run. It's best to make small adjustments to your diet that you know you can stick with.
How Can I Avoid Gaining Weight?
The best way to beat weight gain is to prevent it altogether. Good habits like a balanced diet, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can do more than keep the pounds off — they can also help you stay healthy and avoid problems down the line. Adopting some simple practices can have a big impact today and years from now.
Take a sound approach to eating. Here are some easy ways to adopt a healthy food attitude:
- avoid eating when stressed, while studying, or while watching TV
- eat slowly
- eat at regular times and try not to skip meals
- keep between-meal and late-night snacking to a minimum
- choose a mix of nutritious foods
- pick lower-fat options when you can, such as low-fat milk instead of whole milk or light salad dressing instead of full-fat dressing
- watch the size of your portions
- resist going back for additional servings
- steer clear of vending machines and fast food
- keep healthy snacks like fruit and vegetables on hand in your room
- replace empty-calorie soft drinks with water or skim milk
Be aware of your attitude toward food. If you find yourself fixating on food or your weight, or feeling guilty about what you eat, talk to your doctor or ask someone at the student health center for advice.
Learn about nutrition. Many schools have nutrition counselors. If yours does not, talk to someone on the student health services staff about nutrition and how to make good choices in the dining hall.
Lifestyle Changes to Manage Weight
Making some lifestyle changes can help people to manage their weight. Here are some things you can do:
Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption. Not only can excess drinking lead to health problems, but beer and alcohol are high in calories and can cause weight gain. (Why do you think it's called a beer belly?)
Smoking is another culprit. Although cigarettes may suppress the appetite, smoking can make exercise and even normal activity such as walking across campus or climbing stairs more difficult — not to mention causing heart and lung problems and increasing your risk of cancer.
Many smokers who quit find they have more energy, so battle the extra pounds by exercising. You can avoid gaining weight and increase your chances of quitting if you do. If you want to stop smoking, you don't have to go it alone. Someone at your student health center can direct you to smoking-cessation programs and give you the tips and support you need to quit.
Get enough exercise. Researchers found that students who exercised at least 3 days a week were more likely to report better physical health, as well as greater happiness, than those who did not exercise. They were also more likely to report using their time productively.
Reaping the benefits of exercise does not have to be as difficult as it might seem. Try to work 30 minutes of moderate exercise into your schedule each day (like walking, jogging, swimming, or working out at the gym) and you'll feel and see the results. For other options, check out biking or hiking trails or sign up for a martial arts class. Attending a class on a regular schedule can motivate some people to stick with their fitness goals.
If you don't like organized forms of exercise, you can also work at least 30 minutes of exercise into your daily schedule by walking briskly across campus instead of taking the bus, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or cycling to class. And take time — even just a few minutes here and there — to move around and stretch when you've been sitting for a long time, such as during study sessions.
Get enough sleep. Recent studies have linked getting enough sleep to maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep is also a great way to manage the stress that can prompt overeating. So make sleep a priority, and try to work in a regular 7 or 8 hours each night.
Here are some ways to make the most of your sleep:
- keep a regular sleeping schedule by getting up and going to bed at about the same time every day
- don't nap too much
- avoid caffeine in the evening
- avoid exercising, watching TV, or listening to loud music before bed
Gaining weight during the first year of college is not inevitable. You may have your ups and downs, but a few simple changes to your daily routine can help you fend off excess weight while keeping you physically and mentally healthy.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: July 2010
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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