How nutritious was your first year at college or university? The first item I remember receiving (about a minute after my parents' car turned the corner following my drop off in residence) was a large green plastic tumbler full of beer. If beer counts as food. Many freshmen would argue that it qualifies.
The next day, it was off to eating in residence for the first time. The cafeteria had a pretty good selection of equally horrible and nutritious choices. Let's just say there was no lineup at the salad bar. Home-cooked meals were a million miles away, and so were the pressures of eating what mom would choose for you. Sides of broccoli were, for the majority of diners, quickly replaced with two sides of fries. The chances of that qualifying as a vegetable side is about as likely as the beer-as-food theory.
"Weight gain in the freshman year is a real and studied phenomenon." - Marsha Feldt, registered dietitian
Even if students aren't living in residence, they often find themselves on campus from sunrise to sunset. If they aren't organized enough to meal plan, the munchies will eventually hunt them down. Learning is hungry work! And often the more appealing -- and affordable -- options come in the form of meal-deals-plus-a-pop, says university student Malika Ali.
"The big one for me was pizza. It was $4.99. Why not split a box with your friend?"
Malika gained about 20 pounds during her first year at university, thanks largely to long hours on campus and taking advantage of those meal deals.
Combating the Freshman 15
Sunnybrook registered dietitian Marsha Feldt confirms weight gain in the freshman year is a an issue.
Feldt says the freshman year produces a perfect storm of factors: new pressures, an abundance of unhealthy food options, a lot of sitting around in classrooms and, often, higher alcohol consumption. At a time when the body is still growing -- and when brain power is key to successful learning -- how serious is the problem of the proverbial Freshman 15?
While many studies are ongoing to answer that question, Feldt is cautious, but not alarmist. She says many students eventually find their way despite some initial rebellion against balanced eating choices -- but our growing obesity epidemic also can't be ignored.
Stay active, eat well
Generally, Feldt says students need to stay more active, as almost half at this age are not getting the 150 minutes of recommended physical activity per week. She says they should try to incorporate some snacks as veggies or fruit. When navigating the buffet, she says portions are key: half their plate should be veggies, a quarter starch or grains and the other quarter protein.
And while it may be easier said than done, pacing each alcoholic drink with a glass of water can do wonders for the waistline and overall health.
Malika offers another good tip: if searching for healthy snacks on a budget, consider splitting the cost of a large fruit or veggie tray with a study group.
Now in her fourth year, you can say that Malika has definitely learned a lot. She's taken nutrition courses, dropped the weight and makes meal planning and exercise a priority. Her biggest piece of nutrition advice to other students?
"Comfort food will not comfort you. It will only stress you out even more," she says.
Find more information and resources about student health at health.sunnybrook.ca
Co-authored by Monica Matys, Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.
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