Going off to college is one of the most exciting experiences for young people and understandably so; no parents hovering around, you can basically do whatever you want, you meet tons of awesome people, and lots of parties. But, these same awesome things can be detrimental to your health, particularly in the weight arena; college can also come with a lot of stress and that only compounds the problem. Weight gain is a common phenomenon that most people are none too happy about, but take it as par for the course. It does not have to be that way, however, and there are things you can do to keep your weight in check and live a healthy lifestyle.
Freshman 15—Not Entirely Accurate, But Weight Gain a Clear Issue
The ‘’freshman 15’’ is not a very accurate term to describe the weight gain common of first-year students; I imagine it caught fire because it has a nice ring to it. But, research has found that 60 percent of students do gain weight in their freshmen year. Researchers from Tufts University and Indiana University found that students did gain an average of 6 to 9 pounds during this time—the lower range applying to females and the higher range applying to males. They also followed these same students through senior year and found men gained an average of 14 pounds and women 10—this may not sound like a lot, but weight problems that start in college can set the stage for future weight gain and put these people on track to pack on many more pounds.
What are the Culprits?
When surveying students about their habits, the two biggest culprits in weight gain were significant increases in beer consumption and lack of exercise. Males reported drinking up to four times as much beer during the week, while females ,on average, tripled their beer consumption. A majority of the participants also noted that they often ate as a way to cope with stress; this is a major issue because college causes a lot of stress—a much larger workload, higher stakes for good grades, and the pressures that mount because of poor study habits—which can be a big problem for many students. If eating is the primary way of dealing with it, these students are likely consuming lots of extra calories. Parents no longer available to prepare healthy meals is another big contributor.
The dangers of being overweight have been well-documented, but many younger people often do not pay mind to these problems—gaining a few pounds may not seem like a big deal, they figure they are young and not susceptible to the health problems they hear so much about. But, being overweight in college has been linked to developing serious health conditions or increasing the risk that they will show up a lot sooner. A study by the University of Illinois that was published in September 2012 found that gaining as little as 1.5 pounds a year in college was associated with rises in blood pressure; women were particularly vulnerable. Another study found that overweight college students were already on the path to developing metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes and other serious conditions.
What to Do?
When it comes losing weight and maintaining weight, the core strategies are the same for everyone regardless, but how you apply them can be different depending on individual circumstances. Students who eat at dining halls have been found to gain more weight than students who buy food off-campus—if you live in a dorm, the meal plan can be convenient since you are limited in preparing your own food, but you do not need to rely on it for every meal; a microwave can take you far in preparing healthy foods—heat up some instant brown rice and vegetables with some soy sauce for flavoring, for example. Drinking is a major trigger for weight gain in college students, but if we are being realistic, most will not forgo it completely; so, a realistic plan must be put in place where calories are cut elsewhere to compensate. A commitment to making gradual changes can also help lead to sustainable weight loss—if your class schedule causes a long stretch between meals and you rely on snacks to perk you up, this is a great place to start making better choices—go for satiating healthy fats in the form of nuts or prepare a sandwich with whole wheat bread and natural peanut butter.