Welcome to college life and everything it has to offer: new friends, lots of studying, late-night parties and the Freshman 15. While you might have come to expect most of the aforementioned, the weight gain is probably one part you would prefer to skip. So are you doomed to pack on the pounds or can you avoid them?
The term “Freshman 15” has been around for as long as fast food has, but two recent studies have shown that first-year students may gain more like five to eight pounds. “Over the year, we found that males gained 5.6 pounds and females gained 3.6 pounds, with the large majority of that weight gained in the first semester,” explains Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson, a leading researcher on college weight gain from Brown University. In the second study, conducted at a Midwestern university, students gained an average of eight pounds during their first year. More than one-third gained at least 10 pounds, and one-fifth gained 15 pounds or more. Here’s the kicker: The weight gain often continues in the sophomore year with an additional two or three pounds.
Five or six pounds may not seem like much, but next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up five pounds of butter and imagine that around your belly. Five pounds equal about 17,500 excess calories, and even though these don’t just gather around your hips overnight, eating more than your body needs adds up over time. Getting into the habit of feeding on greasy burgers, soda and other empty calories can eventually damage your health. The long-term risks of obesity are well-established: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol and even certain types of cancer. Being overweight may also affect mood, causing you to be unhappy and even anxious or depressed.
Weight gain can happen quite quickly. You’re at a party surrounded by lots of drinks, chips and pizza. While you’re telling your friend about the cute girl/guy in economics class, you grab two handfuls of chips (about 140 calories), down two sodas (about 150 calories each) and a slice of greasy pizza (about 250 calories). Without being fully aware, you just added roughly 700 calories to your daily intake. The average person would need to run an hour to burn that off. Allow yourself a treat once in a while, but if your jeans are getting snug it’s time to take action.
Your body constantly manages incoming and outgoing calories. While some excess calories are stored in the muscles and liver until needed (think exercise or reduced food intake), the majority of unused energy gets stored as fat in what you would call your “problem area.”
What you eat has a big impact on weight gain. Simple carbohydrates (basically anything white or packaged, such as sugar, cookies, candy, pasta, white rice, white potatoes, white bread and pizza) and fats (meats and greasy fried foods) are easily converted to storage fat while complex carbohydrates (think fresh and whole, such as whole grains, legumes and vegetables) are harder to break down and require more energy to do so. Your body stores fat any time you consume calories that go unused. Simple carbohydrates, as well as fatty foods, promote the release of larger amounts of insulin, which signals your body to store fat. They also send your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride, causing you to fluctuate between high and low energy levels. Each time you’re on the downhill, you tend to want more food to bring you back up. Plus, these foods lack fiber and most nutrients that your body needs for high level functioning.
Being away from home for the first time may present new stressors as you adjust to college life and have to find new ways to deal with things. So, ask yourself: “Do I comfort myself with food when I’m stressed, bored or lonely? Am I feeding my body or my emotions?” If you reach for food when you really need a hug or a friend to talk to, then find ways to feel better without that crutch. Exercising, meeting friends, going to the movies and exploring your new home town are great ways to keep yourself entertained and stimulated.
Establish a healthy relationship with food. View it as fuel, rather than the evil enemy that affects the number on the scale. Keep a food journal and investigate which foods cause you to feel energized or tired, happy or drained, bloated or healthy. Also take a look at what mood you’re in when you reach for the sugary or fatty foods. Once you become aware that healthy food makes you feel and look great, you will enjoy eating quality food instead of the junk.
What to Eat
Protein, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products will fill you up quickly and maintain even energy levels. Pair your chicken with any vegetable. Small amounts of healthy fat promote vitamin absorption, healthy skin and fat burning.
Put yourself to the test: See how long a bowl of pasta keeps you satisfied, compared to a piece of fish or chicken with vegetables. You should notice that the protein and the vegetables will fill you up quickly and for several hours. The pasta might make you sleepy for a while and then hungry again after two hours.
Incorporate strength training twice a week and cardio (e.g. running, walking, biking, etc.) three times a week for 45 minutes. The more lean muscle on your body, the higher your metabolism. Just two pounds of muscle can rev up your daily calorie burn by as much as 100 calories. Most importantly: Forget about the number on the scale – let your happiness be determined by how you feel about yourself.
A lean body is a great goal, but there are good and harmful ways of going about achieving it. You can always find a fellow student who thinks that starvation is the key to weight loss. While it is not only unhealthy, it promotes crankiness and, surprisingly, in the long run starvation will make you heavy. The less you eat, the more your metabolism will slow so that your body can conserve calories and hold on to the fat. The bottom line is that you should eat no less than 1,200 calories a day.
Unrealistic goals will eventually make you feel like a failure because you’ve set yourself up to reach for the impossible. This can also lead to overcompensation. So if you tend to take an all-or-nothing approach, undergo a reality check. Realize that changes in your weight are simply your body’s way of giving you feedback based on your behavior, so make adjustments based on what works for you.