Health and Human Development

How to avoid the 'freshman 15' (or 5)

Freshman year is a time of many changes — new school, new friends, new classes, and new freedoms. For some students, the transition to college life often means more stress and poorer eating habits — which can lead to weight gain. 

“The good news is that the ‘freshman 15’ is a bit of an exaggeration,” said Gordon Jensen, professor and head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “Several studies within the last few years show that not everyone gains weight during their freshman year — some people actually lose weight or stay the same. For those who do gain weight, the average is closer to 5 pounds, instead of 15. But college is still a time where you can learn lifelong healthy eating habits, which, for some people, can be used to keep off unwanted weight gain.”

The Department of Nutritional Sciences has compiled a list of general strategies that will help you develop healthy eating habits, and also a list of food choices that can impact your stress, energy, weight and overall health.

Strategies for Healthy Eating

1. Be aware of your environment. Many dining commons provide buffet-style, “all you care to eat” service, and research indicates that if you put food in front of someone, they’re probably going to eat it. Portion control — limiting the volume you’re eating — is important if you want to keep off weight gain. Don’t eat more calories than you use in a day, and be sure to eat foods that are rich in nutrients (see below for specific choices). “It was our genetic imperative, as hunters and gatherers, to eat as much food as possible, because there was uncertainty as to when we would find the next meal,” said Jensen. Now that we know when the next meal comes (probably whenever there’s a break in classes), it’s not as important to stock up on calories.

2. Know how active you are. This will determine how many calories you should be eating in a day. Someone who exercises several times per week, for example, might need the energy of sugary drinks to help energize their body during exercise. If you have questions about how many calories you use in a day, there are dietitians at University Health Services and Centre Medical and Surgical Associates who can help you assess this.

3. Be aware of your stress levels. For many people, food provides comfort. In a new environment — which can be stressful — people often turn to comfort foods as a way to cope. Many comfort foods, although delicious, tend to be loaded with sugar or fats, which are the enemy of weight loss.

4. Have a plan for choosing your meal. Imagine what your plate will look like before stocking up on food at the dining commons. Focus on vegetables and fruit; these should make up about half of your meal. Vegetables — especially those that are dark and leafy — contain many nutrients that help keep your body running. As a general rule, half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter should be carbohydrates/starches (ideally whole grain), and the last quarter should be protein.

5. Slow down at meal time. Take at least 15-20 minutes to eat your meals. This allows time for the signals from the stomach to tell the brain when you are full. “When people eat quickly, they have a tendency to overeat and then feel overfull,” said Lynn Parker Klees, instructor in nutritional sciences. Slower eating can also help with digestion and prevent indigestion in the short term.

6. Weigh yourself regularly. Do this at least every week and keep a record, so that you can stay on top of whether you’re gaining or losing weight.

When Making Food Choices…

1. Limit your alcohol intake. Most beer is filled with calories. Not only that, but a night of heavy drinking will take its toll on the body. Heavy alcohol consumption is a surefire way to decrease your energy for the next 24 to 48 hours and to increase your stress levels.

2. Be sure you’re getting enough vitamin D. You should be getting at least 800-1000 IU (International Unit, a standardized measurement of vitamins) of vitamin D per day. Low vitamin D levels can result in low energy, muscle aches, and a less-efficient immune system. Vitamin D also can increase the amount of calcium that your body absorbs (one of the reasons that milk is oftentimes fortified with vitamin D). Vitamin D can be found in many dairy products, but, even easier than this, your body can make vitamin D with sun exposure (15 minutes of sun exposure every day, without using sunscreen, will produce the amount of vitamin D your body needs).

3. Eat moderate amounts of protein. Protein can increase that full feeling you get from eating, which can help with portion control. Diets with no protein are dangerous, because your body will resort to breaking down muscles if you don’t eat enough of it. High-protein diets can be useful for athletes, but can produce adverse effects in the nonathletic.

4. Limit how many saturated and trans fats you eat. People commonly gain weight by eating foods high in saturated or trans fats. Trans fats have been taken out of many of the foods we eat, but it’s still a good idea to read nutrition labels whenever you can.

5. Drink enough fluids. Drink 6-8 cups of fluids every day. This includes the fluid from food you eat. Decaf tea/coffee or water is best, but if those aren’t available, diet soda is a good alternative.

6. Watch how many caloric beverages you drink. If you’re not physically active, you should limit your intake of sugary soda and fruit juice. As Klees puts it, “The brain does not register these calories as fullness.” If your brain doesn’t think it’s full, it will send signals to your stomach that you’re still hungry, and you’ll have the impulse to keep eating.

7. Eat moderate amounts of carbohydrates. And try to make as many of your carbohydrate choices whole grain, since these have valuable fiber and nutrients. People tend to be drawn to carbohydrates because they are usually cheap and easy to make. But too many carbohydrates can weigh down on your system, making you feel sluggish and tired.

8. Be sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12. If you’re a vegan, you must take multivitamins. B12 is only found in meat, and it’s important for preventing anemia and many neurological disorders.

The above tips and pointers were brought to you by Gordon Jensen, head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences, and Lynn Parker Klees, instructor in nutritional sciences.

For students interested in learning more about nutrition, Penn State offers several classes on nutrition basics for both non-science majors (NUTR 100 (GHA) Contemporary Nutrition Concerns) and for science majors (NUTR 251 (GHA) Introductory Principles of Nutrition). Additionally, there are many resources online, such as the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Web site and the American Dietetic Association.

Last Updated February 27, 2020