Something to gain

Give in to fat, calories and inertia, and the Freshman 15 could weigh you down

During your newfound collegiate independence, you might envision eating pizza three times a day, scarfing down fistfuls of French fries for lunch and dinner, or topping off each meal with a brownie sundae. College offers many temptations, and mounds of food is one of them. Eating with reckless abandon, and avoiding the veggies mom used to force on you, sounds pretty sweet right now. But when you find yourself unable to zip up the jeans you wore to your high school graduation, you might want to re-examine your definition of freedom.

The extra pounds students accumulate during the first year of college have long been known as the Freshman 15, and they are more reality than myth. A recent study at Cornell University found that students gained an average of four pounds during the first 12 weeks of their freshman year.

According to Stephanie Ewing, a registered dietitian with dining services at California State University, Sacramento, college represents a total change in environment for most students. They stay up later, eat at odd hours, and try to juggle socializing, classes, homework, and other activities. Proper nutrition is an afterthought, if it’s thought of at all.

“First-year students do a lot of things they are not typically used to doing, like snacking frequently and going to Denny’s at two o’clock in the morning to eat breakfast,” she says.

Wendy Cunningham, a registered dietician and assistant professor at CSUS, says that students tend to get the easiest, most convenient foods, which are often high-calorie, high-fat fast food or snack items.

“Students are forced to become sufficient on themselves, and they are probably not going to spend their money on vegetables,” she says.

Ewing says the all-you-care-to-eat format of college dining halls also contributes to first-year weight gain. “Students really need to have their own willpower not to eat too much,” Ewing says. “Their parents are paying for it, and they feel they should be able to eat whatever they want.”

Ewing and Cunningham offer these suggestions for avoiding the infamous Freshman 15:

Don’t skip meals

Dodge extra pounds by foregoing fattening foods in favor of nutritious salad bars———just go easy on the dressing!

Photo By Kathy Phillips

When you skip meals, your body slows down the rate at which it burns calories, leading to weight gain.

“Eating three or more times per day will keep your metabolism working faster, which means you’ll process food faster, ” Ewing says. However, she cautions that those three-plus meals should consist of healthy choices, not French fries, pizza, and ice cream.

Cunningham suggests that students go to the grocery store to stock up on portable “healthy fast food”—like baby carrots, bananas and apples—rather than buying sugary, fatty foods between classes.

“On campus, you don’t see fruit displays, you see snack displays, so it is more tempting to get something unhealthy,” she says. “But with a little pre-planning, students can make better choices and actually save money.”

That’s not to say the campus lacks healthy eating options. Ewing points out plenty of healthy alternatives on campus, such as the salad bar in the dining commons; turkey, ham or roast beef sandwiches on whole wheat or multigrain bread at DaDeli; rice bowls at Stix; and whole wheat vegetable crepes at La Creperie.

Cunningham says simply substituting certain items, like steamed rice for fried rice or vegetables for meat at a Chinese restaurant, can make a big difference. “Again, a lot of it has to do with change and rebellion,” she says. “Students had to eat their vegetables at home, so they don’t want to eat them now, even though we all know it’s healthier to eat fruits and vegetables.”

As part of a class project, students in a recent senior seminar in dietetics identified other lower-calorie, lower-fat substitutes, such as using barbecue sauce, ketchup, or mustard instead of mayonnaise; using avocado, salsa, or marinara sauce instead of cheese; and drinking water and 100-percent fruit juice instead of soda.

Control portions

When you are trying to feed 1,200 students who live in the residence halls, Ewing says it’s easier to have a wide variety of foods. This explains why the dining commons is a binge waiting to happen. It’s got an Asian station, meat-carving station, grill, pasta bar, and pizza bar, not to mention a specialty bar, every day. But having the run of an all-you-can-eat buffet can be dangerous, especially for students on a meal plan that mom and dad are paying for.

“Stop eating when you’re full,” Ewing cautions. “Most people eat too fast, which means they are eating too much.”

Playing intramural sports is just one way to make sure you stay active in college.

Photo By Kathy Phillips

The senior seminar class project recommends eating only half of what you purchase when dining out, and saving the rest for later—which can translate to savings for budget-conscious students.

Ewing recommends that students who intend to nosh at the dining commons take advantage of healthier options, such as the 40-foot salad bar during lunch and dinner and whole grain cereal with low-fat milk at breakfast.


It’s hard to commit to an exercise routine when you’ve got a 10-page term paper due, your boyfriend is not returning your calls and you’re rushing sorority. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority.

“A lot of students forget to exercise, especially when they are trying to fit everything else in,” Ewing says. “But unlike high school, there isn’t a mandatory phys-ed class, so students have to seek out their own activities.”

In college you don’t have to be a superjock to use sports as an excuse to exercise. Intramurals—where CSUS students compete against each other in sports like basketball, softball, soccer and football—are fun and informal, with their share of missed baskets, strikeouts and face plants. Sports clubs offer a slightly higher level of competition—usually against teams from other campuses—but are open to anyone who wants to join, regardless of skill level. Recreation clubs bring together people with similar interests, such as badminton, skiing, cycling, martial arts, ballroom dancing and even water polo.

Not a great team player? Try a solitary pursuit: CSUS students can use the campus pool, cardio-weight room, free-weight room, and racquetball courts free of charge. A new recreation center is currently in the works and will offer considerably more exercise equipment and fitness classes when it is complete.

There are many other opportunities for exercise around Sacramento. For example, the 23-mile Jedediah Smith Memorial Bicycle Trail joins the CSUS campus at the Guy West bridge, providing a convenient and flat place to walk, jog, bike, or rollerblade.

Ewing says that students can get exercise in the simplest ways. “Taking the stairs instead of an elevator or parking farther away and walking are small things you can do to make sure you get some level of activity,” she says.

Get educated

“Students can make better choices when they learn about basic nutrition,” Ewing says. Each year during orientation, she offers an overview of dining options on campus and highlights the places where students can get healthy food.

She also encourages students to find her in the dining commons if they have questions. Ewing has put together a comprehensive list of healthy eating options on campus and she often offers educational activities in the residence halls.