Dining halls with all-you-can-eat buffets, late night pizza, cookie study breaks – most colleges have food — and plenty of it — available at all hours of the day and night. College is an exciting opportunity for young adults, but when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, it can present many challenges. While most students do not gain the full “Freshman 15,” some amount of weight gain is common. One study showed that approximately 70% of college students gained weight during the first year of college, an average of about 7.5 pounds during that time1. Here are some tips for avoiding weight gain when going away to school:
- Strategize your meals: The dining hall will have many tasty options, so go in with a plan. Try to start your meal with the salad bar (many colleges have now added more interesting and appealing items) and make sure you add protein. The fiber from the vegetables, along with the protein, will help you feel full. Then if you’re still craving something more, you can check out the other food stations. If you’re not interested in the salad bar, a helpful rule to follow is to fill at least half of your plate with vegetables, a quarter of it with protein and then no more than a quarter with carbohydrates.
- Get moving: An active lifestyle is essential to maintaining one’s weight at school. Try to walk as much as possible between classes or consider signing up for intramural sports. Many schools now offer yoga, dance classes or other group exercise as part of the tuition. Most importantly, try to find an activity you enjoy. Make it a goal to move for at least 30 minutes per day, most days of the week. Exercise is also a really effective way to de-stress, another benefit to putting in the time to move.
- Snack smartly: If you are staying up late to study, try to choose snacks that are low in sugar and high in protein. Examples of healthy snack foods include an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter, a handful of almonds, carrots with hummus, string cheese, or Greek yogurt. These snacks will keep your blood sugar stable and help prevent further hunger and cravings. In general try to avoid eating late at night, but if you find yourself up late cramming for that exam, make sure you have these healthy snacks on hand.
- Don’t drink your calories: Avoid sugar sweetened beverages such as juice and soda, as well as coffee drinks with added sugar. Aim for drinking 8-10 glasses of water per day.
- Sleep (when you can): Inadequate sleep can contribute to weight gain and cause increased hunger and cravings. While it can be really difficult to get to bed early at school — especially if sharing your space with a roommate– try to make it a priority when you can.
- Enjoy treats in moderation: It’s normal to crave “junk food,” and it’s important to let yourself indulge in moderation. Trying to cut out sweets (or pizza, or chips – whatever it may be) completely will only make you crave that food more strongly. Try to make sure most of your daily diet is comprised of unprocessed foods – including fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and complex carbohydrates.
Again, it is very common to gain weight at college. If you do gain weight, don’t despair, remind yourself that many other students are in the same boat. There are plenty of strategies you can use for getting back to a healthy place, and you will get there. Reach out to your doctor (on campus or at home), or consider meeting with a nutritionist to discuss your options in more detail.
- Vadeboncoeur C, Townsend N, Foster C. A meta-analysis of weight gain in first year university students: is freshman 15 a myth? BMC Obes. 2015; 2: 22.
Dr. Caroline Andrew is a medical weight management specialist at HSS. She is a board certified internal medicine physician and fellowship trained in obesity medicine. Using both dietary and behavioral interventions, along with medications for weight loss, she helps patients lose weight and maintain weight loss.