Erin Muller and Dolly Singh are both freshmen at Augusta State University. Like many new college students, both girls work meals and snacks around their jobs and class schedules.
Miss Singh has a 7:15 a.m. class and starts her day with two cups of coffee. By the end of the day, she's had about six or seven sodas, too.
"The point is to stay awake during class," Miss Muller said.
Both girls work part time in the evenings, then do homework at night or early mornings. Meals consist of what is most convenient, or most appetizing.
"I don't worry about it too much. I eat what I have a craving for," Miss Muller said over her Pizza Hut personal pan pizza box.
"I just eat to eat, to have something in my stomach," Miss Singh said.
For many students, the irregular meals, inadequate sleep, late-night study sessions and stress of college adds up - in pounds.
The result is commonly known as the "Freshman 15," although some say it is more accurately the "Freshman 20 or 25."
Ann Selkowitz Litt, author of The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus, says that calories from drinking and snacking are two of the biggest contributors to weight gain for college students.
Ms. Litt said students also get confused because their schedules tend to be haphazard; they don't know whether they should be eating breakfast, lunch or dinner because every day is different.
"College kids are also faced with a variety of food 24 hours a day and they become like kids in candy stores for the first time and they overeat," she said during a recent interview on NBC's Today show.
Another factor, according to Ms. Litt's book, is that college students drink an exorbitant amount of alcohol while away from home.
Starr Hooks, a registered dietitian at the Medical College of Georgia, said alcohol plays a large part of the college weight-gain.
"Students are away from home and alcohol consumption picks up," she said. "The flip side is that drinking stimulates the appetite and they end up eating late nights at places like Krystal or Waffle House."
Marilyn Wright, a registered dietitian with the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Georgia, said there are several factors that may make college students more susceptible to gaining weight than they are used to.
Many students are less active than they were in high school, unless they are college athletes. Also, around 18, some students' growth rates begin slowing and the body requires fewer calories.
For many, college life equals penny-pinching and the more-for-less attitude. But Ms. Wright said that can also lead to unhealthy decisions.
"There may be more dollar value in those super-size combos," Ms. Wright said. "But the super-size french fries can weigh in at over 600 calories, where as the small fry could be about 250."
"And skipping meals, ironically, usually leads to overeating the next time you eat," Ms. Wright said. Even eating leftover pizza for breakfast is more healthy than not eating breakfast at all.
Mrs. Wright says the best way to stay in shape is to plan your meals and shop accordingly. It's more efficient than running out every time you want to eat, and you'll have healthier meals and snacks on hand.
Students can stock up on pretzels, rice cakes, dry cereal, air-popped popcorn, instant soups and baked chips with salsa. Fill dorm refrigerators with vegetables and low-fat dip, low-fat yogurt, water and fresh fruit.
One popular substitute for meals among college students is the smoothie. These frozen slushy, fruit drinks are fast, easy and often pack as much caloric punch as a full meal.
Nutritionally, they don't compare to a balanced meal, but every once in a while, if there is not enough time for a balanced lunch, they are an adequate replacement. But Ms. Wright warns against having a smoothie as dessert.
"Really there are enough calories to be a meal or even more than a meal," Ms. Wright said.
Karen Cullen, a behavioral nutrition researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture Children's Nutrition Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston said that basically college should teach students as much about their diet as it does other aspects of life.
"One of the most valuable lessons that college life can teach is that freedom must be tempered with self-control," Dr. Cullen said.
Karen Cullen, a behavioral nutrition researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture Children's Nutrition Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston suggests the following tips for avoiding the weight gain that is typical for many college students.
1. Learn productive ways to deal with stress. A short study break, exercising artistic talents, playing basketball, or walking is much healthier than munching through a bag of chips.
2. Keep fat-calories in check. Choose low-fat cafeteria fare such as grilled or baked fish, poultry and lean meats, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, non-fat milk and yogurt and low-fat salad dressings.
3. Limit high-fat and high-sugar treats to once a day.
4. Choose beverages wisely, and be careful of "empty calorie" drinks such as soda.
5. Make time to be physically active every day. Become involved in intramural sports teams. Team up with a classmate for regular roller-blading, biking, racquetball or tennis.
6. Avoid skipping meals, especially breakfast.
7. Have a plan if weight gain begins to exceed three to five pounds. Consider starting a food and physical activity diary to help identify problems.
Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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