College brings a lot of changes, but your pants size doesn’t need to be one of them. You may have heard of the freshman 15 — the idea that students gain weight when they start college. Although putting on weight during your first year is common, studies show that gainers tend to pack on about seven pounds, not 15.
But before you celebrate the fact that 15 pounds is an exaggeration, know that 10 percent of new students do gain that much. And even a seven-pound weight gain is about five times as much as what a person should gain in a year.
So why do college students so frequently put on weight? It’s a combination of generous meal plans, large portions, binge drinking, heavy snacking, more stress and less physical activity. Any adult following that unhealthy lifestyle would gain weight, too.
Two things to remember: This weight gain is not inevitable. And weight gain in your late teens and early 20s is linked to obesity later in life. So the college years are a crucial time for you to learn healthy eating habits and stress management techniques and to ensure that negative patterns don’t settle in for adulthood. Begin by following these five guidelines:
Stick to a schedule
Your regular high school schedule probably meant eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, so a sudden shake-up at college can affect body size. Not eating regular meals can slow down metabolism, leading to weight gain.
Make sure to schedule meals into your day. It will help curb cravings for less-than-healthy fare. Even if your day is erratic and you sleep through breakfast or work nights, you can still plan a healthy meal every five or six hours and a nutritious snack in between.
Grazing all day on processed foods or grab-and-go snacks is not the same as a meal schedule. Don’t confuse snacks with treats! Instead of munching chips between classes or stocking your dorm room with ramen noodles and Kraft dinners, opt for more nutritious fuel: nuts, fruit, tuna or hummus packs, Greek yogurt, string cheese, cut vegetables and trail mix. And yes, the investment in a dorm room mini-fridge is worth it, so you can keep fresh, unprocessed foods on hand.
Make better meal choices
Your meal plan gives you access to an unlimited array of foods. It’s supposed to make the transition from home a bit easier because you don’t have to cook, but the plan can backfire if you choose burgers, fries and pizza more often than a veggie stir-fry.
A good guideline at every meal is to fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with grains (preferably whole grains) and the remaining quarter with protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, chicken, eggs or chickpeas. If dinner is pizza, add salad on the side. And practice the 80:20 rule. If you make healthier choices 80 percent of the time, you can leave 20 percent room for less-than-healthy options such as chili-cheese fries or cupcakes.
Curb alcohol consumption
With less parental supervision and easy availability of alcohol, you have ample opportunity to drink at college — and too often it can become binge drinking (four drinks in a couple of hours for women, five for men). A 2014 national survey of college students found 60 percent drank alcohol, and two-thirds of those reported binge drinking in the preceding month.
Besides the well-known safety and legal issues, those drinks have calories. Sure, one bottle of beer has just 150. But five? That’s 750 calories, or the equivalent of eating an extra meal. There’s a reason it’s called a beer belly.
Drinking at night messes up your schedule, too — you eat late, sleep in, skip breakfast and get off the pattern of regular meals. Plus, you may mistake a hangover or fatigue for hunger and then overeat.
Alcohol in “moderation” is one drink a day for women or two drinks for men (and no, you can’t save those up for seven to 14 drinks on Saturday). Slow your consumption by alternating alcohol-based drinks with water, and choose lower-calorie drinks such as light beer or wine spritzers.
And it’s not just alcoholic beverages that can lead to weight gain. Soda, juice and those fancy, sugar-laden coffee drinks also add calories to your diet and possibly inches to your waistline. Instead, buy a reusable bottle and sip water most often.
The transition you’re making is difficult. Sometimes you might eat in response to anxiety or stress, but a better way to deal with those emotions is a good workout. Check out the school’s fitness center, as the cost is probably covered in your student fees.
Remember, if you played sports in high school but quit in college, the lack of exercise can pack on pounds. If you are not participating in competitive sports, you can still use fitness to meet new people or hang with friends; not all social activities need to include pizza and beer. A running club, recreational sports team or fitness class can help you socialize while you control stress and curb weight gain.
If you have nutrition questions, get in touch with the school’s dietitians, as they probably offer free counseling for students. They can teach you about topics such as portion control and smart snacking and help you develop healthy habits that can last a lifetime.