Hackensack, N.J. It's difficult to think of a way to add pounds faster than living the stereotypical college lifestyle.
Juggling coursework, jobs and a social life leaves little time for exercising or even regular meals. Late-night study sessions are often fueled by the nearest 24-hour greasy spoon. Getting too little sleep can also trick the body into craving more food.
On top of all that, many freshmen are taking in many more calories from alcohol than they have in the past.
That's the bad news. The good news is that not every entering freshman puts on weight, and there are some easy things students can do to avoid packing on pounds.
The first thing to do is to forget the phrase "Freshman 15." A 2006 study by Rutgers University nutritionists tracked the weight of 67 students in their first year. Most students did gain weight, but more than one-fourth of students actually lost weight. Those who did gain weight put on an average of 7 pounds, not 15.
But gaining 7 pounds doesn't require all that much extra food. The Rutgers study said that taking in just 112 extra calories each day - roughly equivalent to a cup of Cheerios - would do it.
Jackie Ehlert-Mercer, a registered dietitian who runs nutrition programs for students at the University of British Columbia and teaches a course in nutrition at Ramapo College, said that freshmen who gain weight their first semester and don't lose it in the second semester are more likely to keep gaining weight throughout college. If the pattern continues, adulthood obesity and related health problems such as heart disease and diabetes may follow.
"An overweight adolescent ... is probably going to become an obese adult if they don't mediate their weight during college," Ehlert-Mercer said. "The stresses they face such as getting married or getting a full-time job tend to increase. They don't tend to diminish."
Scott Fisher, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University Health and Fitness Center, advises that students plan their days to ensure that they eat regularly and healthfully. Skipping meals to lose weight usually backfires, he said.
"You should really go no longer than four or five hours without eating something," Fisher said. "If you go for too long a period of time without eating, your blood sugar level drops. When your blood sugar level drops, your body essentially sends you signals that it wants a very quick source of energy, which are the typical sugary foods, and some concentrated calories, which are fatty foods."
Eating frequently has worked for Mike Sciscione, 22, a senior at William Paterson University. The Rockaway native eats six small meals a day. Something as simple as a fruit smoothie counts, he said. Sciscione buys bulk packages of 100-calorie snack packs and keeps a bottle of water with him to stave off hunger pangs. "It keeps your metabolism going and keeps you from gaining weight," he said.
Some students who gained weight said they were able to lose it again by reassessing their food and exercise choices.
Ramya Pallavajhala, 22, a senior at Fairleigh Dickinson University, lost most of the weight she gained the first semester of freshman year by cutting out cheese and cooking healthy, vegetable-rich Indian dishes. She also walks between her Hackensack home and the Teaneck campus and squeezes in the occasional gym workout when her schedule permits.
"Once you gain the weight, it's very tough to regain your shape," Pallavajhala said. "But it's easy to prevent it."
Going easy on the alcohol can also make a big difference.
Daniel Hoffman, a co-author of the Rutgers study, said that the body metabolizes alcohol before either carbohydrates or fat. That means the body has less opportunity to burn off carbohydrates and fats from food.
The sheer number of calories in alcoholic drinks is enough to make most people gain weight, especially if they are consuming the same amount of food and nonalcoholic beverages. A single shot of 80-proof vodka contains 97 calories, and a typical light beer contains about 99, according to thecaloriecounter.com. Combine hard liquor with mixers (110 calories for an 8-ounce glass of orange juice) or down a few beers during a drinking game, and the calories add up quickly.
"A lot of students don't realize that the number of calories per gram in alcohol is closer to fat than to carbohydrates," Hoffman said. "If you look at binge drinking ... you're looking at a lot of calories."
Fitness and stress relief
Eating is only one side of the weight-gain equation. Working out can help burn off the occasional late-night pizza or homesickness-induced pint of ice cream.
Fisher recommended at least half an hour of cardiovascular exercise most days a week, and augmenting that with strength training a few times a week.
Relaxing a little isn't a bad idea, either. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that college students who slept for four hours a night produced more of a hormone called ghrelin, which causes feelings of hunger, and less of leptin, which makes people feel full, than peers who had been allowed to sleep for as much as 10 hours.
Though most freshmen will err on the side of eating too much and exercising too little, some students respond to stress by becoming too restrictive with their diets. Students who have experienced disordered eating patterns before college face the highest risk of developing serious eating disorders in college, Ehlert-Mercer said.
Students who find themselves thinking obsessively about food, purging after eating or exercising compulsively to lose weight should see a counselor or doctor.
Most college health centers either employ or can refer students to a nutritionist or psychologist to treat eating disorders.