The average college student forks out $4,500 a year for three meals a day at the university dining hall—significantly more than the typical American’s grocery bill and, undoubtedly, with more variety: Some 59 percent of schools offer all-you-can-eat meal plans, according to FoodService Director’s 2016 College and University Census.
It should come as no surprise, then, that college freshmen put on weight at a rate much faster than the general population, according to a 2015 meta-analysis of first-year weight gain in the journal BMC Obesity. In fact, the researchers found that nearly two thirds of university newbies gain weight, although it’s not quite the 15 pounds we’re warned about: Among the gains, 7.5 pounds was the average—half of what you might expect but still a significant amount over a short period of time.
Call it a newly discovered taste for independence. “Students are on their own for the first time, navigating food choices and with more freedom over what they eat,” explains Jamie Bodenlos, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, who has studied freshman weight gain. Now place those same people in the free-for-all environment of college dining halls, little physical activity (most high school athletes don’t go on to become college players), academic stress, and, yes, the sudden availability of booze. It doesn’t take long for the pounds to start adding up.
Most weight gain happens before the school year’s halfway mark. “In our data, we saw almost five pounds of weight gain in the first semester,” says Bodenlos. Why that’s worrisome: “Weight gain [in early adulthood] is a remarkable predictor of pathologies [such as diabetes and high blood pressure] later in life,” warns David Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University, who has studied the freshman 15.
Luckily, colleges are starting to wise up to the link between an unhealthy lifestyle and poor academic performance, says Sareen Gropper, PhD, RDN, a professor of nutrition at Florida Atlantic University. Ninety-five percent of surveyed schools are now sourcing at least some ingredients locally, according to the FoodService Director census, and nearly two thirds are offering vegetarian options. “A lot of the campuses are getting rid of those all-you-can-eat dining halls,” Gropper adds, as well as posting nutritional information for items on the menu.
But don’t expect your school to do all the work for you.
Seven strategies to stave off the freshman 15
1. Start with salad
Bypass the pasta station, and head straight for the salad bar. If your first plate is heavy on greens, you can feel free to head back for seconds—and feel as if you’re taking full advantage of your dining plan, says Bodenlos. “If you fill up on vegetables first, you’re less likely to go for fried chicken and French fries—or at least, to eat too much of those,” she points out. Just be wary of calorie-heavy add-ons, such as croutons, cheeses, and creamy dressings. (Hint: If you’re not sure which toppings to avoid, your school likely posts nutritional info online.)
Star School: In 2006, the University of California at Berkeley became the first campus in the U.S. to serve up salads that were certified organic. The salad bars included lots of delicious topping options, including sunflower seeds and soy bacon bits.
2. Consider your dorm room a junk-free zone
Banish chips and candy from your living space, and invest in a mini fridge that will let you store healthier snacks, such as fruit and veggies, yogurt, or cottage cheese, suggests Gropper. Where to source your stash? A number of universities are now hosting weekly farmers’ markets on campus, an ideal way to stock up on locally grown produce. If your parents’ care packages are the culprit, see if your school offers an online care package program—many universities sell healthy and gluten-free options.
Star School: Yale University’s UnCommon Market opens once a week to offer up fresh fruits, vegetables, and locally sourced meats on campus.
3. Plan ahead
If you have a solid block of classes, make sure to pack enough snacks to hold you over. “With college schedules, it’s hard to adhere to 9 a.m. breakfast, noon lunch, and 5 p.m. dinner,” Bodenlos says. “Be prepared to have smaller, more regular snacks throughout the day,” which will help you avoid a binge when you are finally able to eat an actual meal. Her suggestions: Grab fresh fruit from the dining hall and pair it with peanut butter, pack a bag of nuts and dried fruit, or pick up a yogurt from a campus store. Some schools’ dining halls will even let you pack a healthy lunch to go, says Gropper.
Star School: For $3.50, North Carolina State University students can purchase a reusable take-out container, allowing them to grab a full meal (plus a piece of fruit!) from the dining hall to go.
4. Take the long way back
Have some free time after class? Walk back to your dorm…and take the scenic route, says Gropper; do it often, and those extra steps will add up. Same goes for taking the stairs instead of the elevator, looking for the hilliest route across campus, and going for walks with your friends instead of vegging out in front of the TV.
Star School: At the University of Kentucky, bright blue signs around campus advertise ho w long it takes to walk to sought-after destinations students may not know are close by. Walkers can scan QR codes on the signs for directions.
5. Take advantage of campus resources
If you’re clueless when it comes to nutrition—whole grains versus processed, lean meats versus fatty—find out if your college offers help from an expert. “A lot of campuses have dietitians who actually do dining hall tours and teach students about nutrition,” Gropper says. Then access nutritional information online (or via the university app) to preplan your meal at the dining hall.
Star School: The University of Idaho’s in-house dietitian conducts free monthly cooking classes to teach students how to whip up tasty, nutritious meals on a budget.
6. Weigh yourself daily
Your laptop and smartphone aren’t the only devices you need in your dorm room—you should also outfit your space with a scale. In a 2017 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study, female college students who weighed themselves daily saw a decline in body fat. “The important thing is not the number on the scale, but the direction it’s going,” says Levitsky, who suggests charting your weight to help you see trends. Afraid you’ll start obsessing? Try the Quantum Scale ($59, quantumscale.com), which tells you only how much you’ve gained or lost, not how much you actually weigh. Another option: Make a point to trade your yoga pants or sweats for closer-fitting clothing a couple days a week; that way, you’ll notice if your waistband is feeling tighter.
Star School: Texas A&M students can receive a free body composition analysis through the university, assessing their body fat percentage, metabolic rate, total body water, and lean mass.
7. Don’t skip gym class
If you struggle to make it to the campus rec center, sign up for a for-credit gym class—think golf, weight training, or even dance. “It’s great when you have a heavy semester and could use that activity break,” says Gropper. Plus, “learning a new sport—golf lessons, tennis lessons—is very expensive once you’re out of college.”
Star School: At Washington and Lee University, coeds can choose from a wide range of phys-ed courses: swimming, yoga, handball, golf, cross-training, running, mountain biking, and rock climbing, to name a few.
College is the start of a whole new world. Using the strategies above will help prepare you for what comes next without the extra pounds tagging along.