It’s the tale that all post-secondary students hear before starting school: chances are you will probably gain weight and eat unhealthy in the first year of college or university.
Dubbed the ‘Freshman 15’, students are told they can gain up to 15 pounds in that first year. And while this is nothing new (or even the reality for many students), experts say it’s easy for students to fall into unhealthy habits when it comes to diet.
According to a July report from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., both men and women went through changes in their diet in first year, but men were more likely to get hit with the Freshman 15.
“These changes reflect a poorer-quality diet for both sexes, but more so for males, and were accompanied by increases in body weight, BMI, waist to hip ratio and body fat, which could lead to possible longer-term health implications and increased disease risk,” authors said in the study.
Authors found energy intake remained the same for both sexes (the amount of calories they were consuming), but there was an increase in more alcohol consumption — more so among men.
“Diet quality decreased, characterized by a reduced intake of healthy foods/beverages in both sexes such as yogurt, cheese, oatmeal, breads, rice, pasta, vegetables, green salad, fruits, steak, fish, nuts and milk, and an increased consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages such as donuts/cakes, fried chicken, beer and liquor,” authors continued.
Is the Freshman 15 real?
Men displayed a more “adverse and lower quality eating patterns,” and were less likely to eat vegetables or eggs.
Registered dietitian Anar Allidina told Global News the Freshman 15 is not necessarily a myth or truth.
“It’s actually a bit of both,” she said.
“Studies have shown that first-year university and college students do tend to gain weight but the average is lower than 15 pounds. Studies show weight gain ranges from four to 10 pounds.”
She added that with any life change, our routine tends to change.
“As a result, our eating patterns are different,” she explained. “Living on residence and having unlimited access to the dining hall, no one telling you what to eat and snacking late at night can all contribute to less-than-ideal eating choices which can lead to weight gain.”
In fact, she isn’t surprised with some of the results of the Brock study.
“If kids were not independent with meal planning and prep when they were living at home, chances are they will have a harder time making healthier choices when they are living away from home,” she said.
“This is why it is so important to establish healthy eating habits early on and get kids learning how to cook.”
Tips students should keep in mind
Allidina said there are plenty of things students can do to avoid going off track and falling into the Freshman 15.
Don’t skip meals: Getting into a routine and creating a structure for your meals will help you feel more in control of what you’re eating, she said.
Review meal plans: If you are signed up for a meal plan, look into your options before grabbing something to eat. “Be careful at the cafeteria. Make sure you take a look at everything that is available before you choose what to eat,” she said.
“Do your best to fill half your plate with veggies — this could be a salad, a soup, steamed or cooked vegetables or even raw veggies.”
Fill a quarter of your plate with whole grains like quinoa, brown rice or whole grain pasta, and fill the remaining quarter of your plate with lean protein like lentils, grilled chicken, or baked fish.
READ MORE: 7 reasons why you’re always hungry
Don’t drink your calories: In place of flavoured coffee drinks or energy drinks to stay awake during classes, stick to regular coffee or tea with one packet of sugar.
“Stay hydrated with plenty of water, which will also help fight fatigue and keep you energized,” she said. “Be careful with drinks and cocktails that are often sweetened. Alcohol is filled with empty calories, so being mindful with beverage choice is important.”
Keep snacks on hand: If you are up late studying, arm yourself with nutrient-dense snacks. “Replace potato chips with air-popped popcorn, keep fresh fruit on hand — apples, pears, and oranges don’t require too much prep,” she said.
“Keep granola bars (less than give grams of sugar), string cheese, whole-grain crackers, cut-up veggies and hummus, and nuts stocked in your room so [you] won’t be tempted to hit the vending machines or ordering a pizza.”
Move: Besides your diet, exercise is the best way to stay in shape and energized.
“Join the campus gym or do a class with some friends as a way to beat stress and have fun. Join a sports team to help you stay active,” she said. “If you can, bring your bike to campus to help get you around and stay active. Walking is also a fantastic and easy way to get in your steps if you have a break between classes.”