We’ve all heard of the freshman fifteen. Between dorm meals, increased alcohol consumption, and lack of physical exercise, it’s easy to understand how the college lifestyle could lead to weight gain. But the freshman fifteen and the obesity epidemic are two very different things. Obesity is defined by the World Health Organization as excessive fat accumulation that presents a health risk. It’s this potential health risk that makes fighting obesity so important.
There is no one weight that signifies a healthy person. Students of all shapes and sizes can be healthy, or unhealthy, depending on their lifestyle. It can be tricky navigating your health while juggling the personal, social, and academic aspects of college, but it’s absolutely crucial. You’re nothing without your health, and college can be a great time to get into good habits. From understanding what obesity is and learning the steps you can take to combat it to finding the resource needed to prevent it, read on.
Obesity & College: Beyond the Freshman Fifteen
Obesity is a complex health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), genes and family history, medications, and our daily behaviors play a significant role in our physical health and susceptibility to obesity. It’s important to remember that, while there are increased health risks associated with obesity, obesity in and of itself is not “bad,” especially in light of societal pressures to be thin.
Body mass index, or BMI, has been one of the standard medical methods for determining if a person is obese, overweight, or unhealthy. Some medical professionals today reject this standard. Sharon Zarabi, RD, argues that “we need to redefine health and look at the person as a whole, taking into account fitness level, sleep patterns, joint pain, vitamin levels, breathing, strength, happiness, [and] social connections.”
Furthermore, people who happen to be higher on the weight spectrum are not guaranteed to develop health issues because of it, points out Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author. Health is not weight-dependent; popular culture, as well as many medical professionals, should consider a more holistic equation based on physical and emotional health and not on weight alone, she says.
Our physical and mental health is significantly tied to an active lifestyle and healthy eating habits. Below we offer some important facts and figures for college students to consider so they can develop or maintain a healthy lifestyle while in school. By taking strategic and well-considered actions, students can lead a healthier life and avoid putting on the unwanted weight that’s often referred to as the “freshman 15.”
Developing Healthy Habits in College: What Can Students Do?
While your own physical and mental health, and whether you feel healthy or unhealthy, is specific to you, there are certainly steps you can take to ensure that you’re moving in the right direction. To fend off excess weight gain that can move you into unhealthy territory, here are some changes to consider.
Expert Insight on College Obesity
Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. She inspires her community, including students, to make healthy food and lifestyle choices.
Her website is drlisayoung.com.
Q: What are some things that a student can do to make sure they’re making healthy choices despite having a hectic schedule and limited funds?
A: Here are some simple tips that college students can do:
Stock up. If you have healthy snacks around, that’s what you will eat. Keep the fridge stocked with apples, oranges, baby carrots, and other simple grab-and-go healthy foods. These are affordable as well.
Create structure. One of the most difficult aspects of losing weight is the lack of structure, especially now [during the pandemic]. So, I urge students to create a structure—plan when, what, and how much you are going to eat, and try to stick to it as much as possible.
Q: What are some of the physical and mental/emotional issues that obesity can lead to that students should be aware of?
A: Weight gain and obesity come with a host of negative consequences. These include increased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers. Weight gain can also affect self-esteem.
Q: What are some tips for managing or easing school-related stress that could help students lead healthier lifestyles?
A: Exercising regularly can help relieve stress, which can also lead students to be more in touch with their bodies and help prevent weight gain. Walking, yoga, swimming, weight training, and doing what you love is important. Meditation helps as well.
Q: How can portion control help students eat healthfully and not gain weight?
A: Portion control is super important, as large portions contain more calories than smaller ones. My research found a perfect parallel between increasing portion sizes and the US obesity epidemic.
Try these simple tips:
Watch your food portions. You don’t have to weigh and measure every morsel of food, but you want to be aware of how much you are eating. Eat mindfully and pay attention to your hunger levels.
Pre-portion your snacks. Pre-portioning snacks or having measuring cups handy works well. For example, it’s really easy to mindlessly eat an entire jar of nuts. Portioning out a serving and storing servings in baggies helps.
Q: Where can students find help making good choices when it comes to food, exercise, stress management, and mental health?
A: There are many free resources available to students. College campuses have student health centers, which I encourage students to take advantage of.
If you use social media to gather health information, follow experts with actual credentials and degrees—a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) or an MD. There’s a lot of false info on social media, so it’s important to check out the sources.
Resources & Tools for Fighting College Obesity
Harvard University Obesity Prevention Source: This resource includes information and links to articles on developing healthy eating habits while in school.
HelpGuide: Find a good rundown on mindful eating habits, techniques, and health benefits.
Nutrition Solutions Blog: Written by Kelli Worley, a licensed dietitian, this blog contains dozens of entries to help you find healthier eating habits.
ObesityAction.org: This resource provides tips on preventing the freshman 5, 10, 15, or 40, with advice from health experts.
SetToGo.org, “Healthy Eating on Campus”: SetToGo offers a short, helpful list of excellent and practical points related to eating on campus.
Working Against Gravity: This lifestyle and mindset blog offers an explanation of intuitive eating versus intentional eating and the pros and cons of each.
Colorado Technical University, “Four Reasons College Students Should Make Time for Exercise”: Located under the Success Tips blog, this article offers four easy-to-follow suggestions to become more active while in school.
New York University, “Physical Activity”: As part of its effort to help students develop healthy habits, NYU offers this extensive guide, including a physical activity stats and suggestions section.
SetToGo.org, “Ways to Get and Stay Active on Campus”: This quick reference offers great tips on using the campus fitness center, joining intramural sports, and starting a buddy system.
ThoughtCo., “How to Find Time to Exercise in College”: These 10 tips can help you create more space in your day for physical activity.
Sleep & Stress
Mayo Clinic, “Stress Management”: This thorough guide offers actionable tips for battling stress and highlights the importance of social interaction and physical activity.
PsychCentral.com, “The Health Benefits of Journaling”: Although journaling might seem like an elementary or out-of-date practice, this recent article showcases the benefits that journaling offers, including stress reduction.
Purdue Global, “The College Student’s Guide to Stress Management”: This extensive guide covers a dozen stress-management activities that students can try immediately, as well as how to make a plan and build a support system.
ThoughtCo., “How to Wake Up Feeling Motivated: 8 Tips”: The key to a productive and rewarding day starts with good sleep. You’ll find tips on waking up ready to tackle the day.
Verywell Mind, “Effective Stress Relievers for Your Life”: Reviewed by a medical doctor, this article offers four categories of stress relief techniques that are substantiated by clinical studies.
Verywell Mind, “How Does Sleep Affect Mental Health?”: This quick reference guide covers the importance of sleep when it comes to mental health and includes information on stress, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and finding medical professionals who can help.