Should college students really be worried about the freshman 15?

We spoke with George Mason University’s Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., to see what studies have shown for incoming students, what habits to be aware of and how to stay in control.

Photo by Gesina Kunkel

College eating habits are different.

Some students fly through the cafeteria seconds before class while others hang out in the on-campus coffee shop for hours. There’s food within reach (or a short walking distance) at almost any point in the day. And did we mention late night snacking?

Despite whether or not these behaviors are healthy for any given student, the widespread use of the phrase freshman 15 might not be as accurate as people think. According to a 2008 study titled The Freshman 15: Is it Real?, published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the US National Library of Medicine, researchers found an average weight gain of 2.7 pounds in 125 participants, with men more likely to gain weight than women, and freshman students being five times more likely to gain weight than the general population.

Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., professor and chair of nutrition at George Mason University College of Health and Human Services, has studied student eating habits for years, with an emphasis on weight management and community-based research, and has found that there is much more to know about the freshman 15.

We spoke with him about what students should know about their first year, how to be more aware of eating habits and where students can seek help if needed. Highlights from our conversations are below.

What should everyone know about the reality of the freshman 15?
The first thing students should know is that it is not destiny. There’s actually been studies that show a big range of weight gain or that some students don’t gain weight at all. So, it really is within your control. But the factors that tend to push it toward weight gain are that you’re being moved a bit out of your comfort zone, and people should realize, the food is going to change, your friends are going to change, what you do from day-to-day is going to change. We certainly want it to be as positive as possible, but it can also mean more junk food, more eating out, even the presence of alcohol. And you know, you’re becoming an adult and you’re going to make your own decisions, but it’s much better to make them with your eyes open rather than if it just happens because some of the people around you are behaving not so well in their diets or behaviors.

What are some eating habits students should be aware of, whether good or bad?
Well, on one hand, students should know that they shouldn’t really be gaining weight when they enter the college cafeteria (specifically at George Mason University), because the standard fare is nutritionally balanced and has reasonably good stuff to choose from. In fact, it’s somewhat higher in fiber than the average American diet, too. But on the other hand, if you’re sitting through three versions of your friends eating lunch, and you just keep sitting there as people come and leave your table, you can wind up passively over-consuming calories. Especially since, sometimes, just having food in front of us and available, even if it is reasonably healthy foods that are good choices, just the variety and the time you spend around food may make you consume more calories. Students need to be mindful or conscious in terms of their eating. Plus, eating slower is always a good option. If you’ve got to hurry because you have 10 minutes before you need to be in class, you’re most likely going to eat too many calories and not be aware than you’ve had or haven’t had enough to eat.

What about exercise? Does it help in terms of eating habits and fighting weight gain?
Forgive me, I am going to sound like I’m anti-exercise. I’m not at all, and students should get exercise often. But if you get into the habit of thinking, “It’s OK, I can eat without thinking about it and then just go to the gym and make up for it,” it’s not going to work very well. You’re not tying the two things directly together. You will most likely overeat calories by 500 because by working hard physically, it makes you hungrier and your body wants to replace those calories. And then when you eat those extra calories, you need some serious gym work to then burn those off too. It’s also partly the psychology of it. You have to be focused on the future. It’s not just about the pleasure of the moment.

There are also food delivery robots at George Mason. How do you think they have affected student eating habits across campuses that have them?
What a perfect example of how to choose wisely. Yes, you can have unhealthy food delivered to your door, but this service and the delivered food should be used mindfully. It really is about how much you have of it, how often you have it and how you balance it with other things.

Do you think parents should talk to their kids about eating habits when they go to college?
That kind of depends on you as a parent, knowing your kids and what they will respond to. It’s always better if they bring it up rather than if you push it on them. You have to know what your situation is and the best way to manage it in terms of parent-to-child communication. But, parents do play an active role by being good role models. For example, you can’t tell your child not to smoke cigarettes when you’re puffing on one yourself. That doesn’t go over well, and it’s the same thing with food. As a parent, you’re modeling it.

Is there anything else people should know about nutrition in college?
It is all within your control. No one is force-feeding you “bad” foods. No one is saying “You must eat this,” and a little bit of thought and planning can go an awfully long way. You can also avoid the situations that you know are triggers for you. You want to be social, but you can also get involved with your friends when they’re doing something healthier, like exercising for example. And if you think you might have problems controlling your eating on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s too much or too little, then student health services is a great place to turn. That’s one of the most important things to know.

For more information on Lawrence Cheskin and the research at George Mason University, visit gmu.edu. A new College of Health and Human Services study on student eating habits called Mason: Health Starts Here by the Mason Cohort (which offers gift card incentives to students who participate), will start in the fall 2019 semester.

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