Weighing the Options: Health-Psychology Expert Gives Tips for Avoiding “Freshman 15”

Charlotte Markey. Photo by Caryn Schwartz

Charlotte Markey. Photo by Caryn Schwartz

By Tom McLaughlin

As the school year begins, first-year students may be warned about the fabled “Freshman 15,” the alleged tendency for students to gain weight during their first year at college.

But is it real and, if so, how can it be avoided?

To shed light on these questions, we check in with health-psychology expert Charlotte Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden and author of the book Smart People Don’t Diet.

Smart People Don't Diet-textSo is the “Freshman 15” a myth or reality?

It is not uncommon for students to gain a bit of weight in their freshman year. But 15 pounds is inaccurate. Most freshmen will gain closer to 3-4 pounds, according to recent research.

What are some of the underlying causes for this weight gain?

Students in their freshman year experience a whole new lifestyle and their habits change. They may sleep less, exercise less, and drink alcohol more. All of these factors can contribute to weight gain.

What are some steps that students can take to avoid this weight gain?

Stay active – even now that physical education is no longer a required course. Hit the gym or go on a walk with friends a few times a week.

In addition to making healthy food choices, give some thought to what you drink! Many beverage options – from lattes to soda to beer – are typically nonnutritive. There’s nothing good in them and they are high in calories. Just adding a few drinks a week can account for gaining a few pounds in and of itself. Opt for a home-cooked – or dorm-cooked – meal whenever possible. “Eating in” means smaller portions and usually healthier options.

Unfortunately, getting adjusted to hectic schedules and late-night studying can lead to bad eating habits. What else can students do to maintain a proper diet?

Buy healthy options. You can’t eat healthy foods if they aren’t available. Keep fruits and veggies that you like close by. Even Greek yogurt, healthy cereals, and smoothies can be good snacks. It’s also okay to indulge sometimes though; studying can be stressful and some snacking may help students to survive!

In the same respect, how can students ensure that they fit enough exercise into their busy days?

Make plans with friends. Make exercise social so that it isn’t a chore but something to look forward to. Also, meeting a friend at the gym or a class creates accountability.

What are some other pitfalls for students to look out for and how can they avoid them?

Be aware of how foods are prepared and the portion sizes. Cafeteria eating can be dangerous because a lot of food is fried and portions are often big, especially if a meal plan allows unlimited returns to select more food. Be careful!

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