Weighty Decisions: Rutgers’ Nutritional Sciences Experts Offer Tips for First-Year Students

Weighty Decisions: Rutgers’ Nutritional Sciences Experts Offer Tips for First-Year Students

While the 'freshman 15' might be bit of a misnomer, the risk of packing on the pounds freshman year is real – unless you plan

student weighing food choices
First-year students are especially at risk for expanding waistlines: Many are on their own for the first time and making poor meal decisions.

Students focus on how they look, their body size, but they should also consider how the quality of their diet affects their risk of chronic disease later on.”

-- Diane
Rigassio Radler

When Miranda Schlitt arrived at Rutgers as an undergraduate, she didn’t give much thought to the possibility of gaining the “freshman 15.” In fact, she was excited about the opportunity to sample the dining hall’s cultural cuisine. The Garrison, N.Y., native found herself gravitating toward the Asian dishes, particularly lo mein and samosas. Although Schlitt understood proper portion sizes and the importance of eating nutritionally balanced meals, these considerations took a backseat to taste, variety and a sense of adventure.  

“Of course, I had heard about the freshman 15 in high school and at my Rutgers orientation, but the dining halls gave so many great options. I would try different dishes every day,” says Schlitt, now a fourth-year nutritional sciences student at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “That’s a big problem freshmen have. They should be learning what they should eat, rather than trying everything.”

Before long, Schlitt noticed her clothes didn’t fit quite as well, and discovered her weight was up five pounds.

Schlitt’s first-year college weight gain is more in line with what research on the freshman 15 has found. In a study published in 2006, Peggy Policastro, a nutrition specialist for Rutgers’ Dining Services and a faculty member in the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, discovered the average first-year weight gain is seven pounds, with three-quarters of the students studied experiencing some gain during the year.

Policastro points to three factors that make first-year students especially at risk for expanding waistlines. Many are on their own for the first time and making poor meal decisions. They may consume extra calories with mindless munching or late-night meals, and the amount of exercise they do declines. “In high school, they might have been on a team, but at the college level, only the elite athletes really have a defined schedule for exercise every day,” Policastro explains. “Even if students play an intramural sport, the training is not the same.”

A drop-off in exercise played a role in Schlitt’s weight gain. “I was in dance every day throughout high school, but when I started college, I stopped,” she says. “Walking to class kept me active, but I was never as active as I was in high school.”

Also, being away from family for the first time causes stress, which can lead to weight gain. “People respond to stress either by eating or by not eating,” says Diane Rigassio Radler, associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers’ School of Health Related Professions. “In addition, there are some hormonal links between stress and an increase in cortisol, which can increase fat tissue.” It’s important, she notes, that students recognize stress and their reaction to it, and then address their behavior by finding an alternate way to reduce stress, such as exercise or meditation.

Students whose schedule includes studying or socializing until the wee hours also may be at risk for weight gain. According to a recent study published in the journal Sleep, people who slept only four hours a night consumed on average 500 extra calories a day and gained about two pounds more than those who slept up to 10 hours.

To keep the weight off, students should be proactive about scheduling meals and monitoring calories. “Skipping breakfast can lead you to eat more at lunch or dinner,” says Policastro, who founded the RU Healthy Dining Team to help students map their nutritional goals. She recommends keeping healthy snacks, such as low-fat granola bars, baby carrots, nuts or whole-grain pretzels, on hand. And watch alcohol consumption.  “Alcohol is a calorie-dense source. The higher percentage of alcohol, the more calories it has,” says Policastro. “The way alcohol is metabolized in the body is similar to that of fat. So, when you think of avoiding fat for the calories, you should consider alcohol in a similar way.”

Concerns about the freshman 15 aside, that first year away from home presents students with an opportunity to establish lifelong healthy eating and exercise habits. “Students focus on how they look, their body size, but they should also consider how the quality of their diet affects their risk of chronic disease later on,” says Radler. “Think high-fat diet, cardiovascular disease, low-nutrient profile, cancer risk.”