Johnny McGibbon, a senior at the University of St. Thomas, wants to eat healthier, but says he can’t.
“I live in an upperclassmen dorm that doesn’t have a kitchen. For me, that feels like I’ve gone back 20 steps,” said McGibbon, who is also a peer educator for the St. Paul university’s Health Promotion Team. “So I don’t have fresh produce I can store. So now it’s going back to what’s convenient — what can I make in two minutes in a microwave?”
Studies show that the “freshman 15” is a myth, but there is plenty of truth to college weight gain and the difficulties of living a healthy lifestyle in college.
The “freshman 15” commonly describes the weight that U.S. students put on in their first year of college. Originally, the phrase was the “freshman 10,” reported in a New York Times story in 1981. But the number was “adjusted upward” to reflect Americans’ creeping weight gain, according to a September 2014 article in Atlantic magazine.
A more realistic scenario is students gaining approximately 12 pounds during four years of college rather than 15 in the first year alone, according to a 2012 study at Auburn University in Alabama.
“There are plenty of interesting articles out there that looked at studies across long periods of time,” said Dr. Katherine Lust, a nutritionist and the director of research at the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service. “What they find is that it is more the norm that first-year students will gain about 5 pounds.”
Why do college freshmen gain weight? According to Lust, many students are on their own for the first time and must make nutritional and healthy lifestyle decisions without parental input.
“You don’t have your parents saying ‘eat your vegetables,’ so when you get on a college campus, all of a sudden you have even more choices,” Lust said.
“So you have decisions about what you eat and when you eat it. You have [to make a] decision about how much you sleep, which can affect your weight,” she added. “You have [to make a] decision about how much activity and exercise you engage in. You have choices of whether you want to consume alcohol or not.”
According to kidshealth.org, having a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep are ways that college students can curb weight gain. The website also says that students should watch their alcohol and nicotine consumption. Alcohol adds calories and smoking makes physical exercise more difficult, the site says.
Gender also plays a role. Men are more likely to gain weight in the first year of college than women, according to the National Institutes of Health. A study also pointed out that men were less concerned and had fewer strategies for weight control than women.
Therese Coughlan, also a senior and peer educator at St. Thomas, said living a healthy lifestyle in college is easier said than done.
“To be healthy is more expensive, and, at times, commitment is more difficult,” she said.
Students may find it helpful to talk to their doctors or to the school health center. But some college students say administrators need to meet them halfway and have resources available for students wishing to live a healthier lifestyle.
McGibbon said it comes down to a 50-50 effort, with the school and the students contributing equal shares toward a healthy lifestyle on campus.
As an example, McGibbon’s Health Promotion Team hosts the Wellness 5K Run/Walk down Summit Avenue in St. Paul each year. Students and administrators collaborate on the 5K, which is open to St. Thomas students, faculty, staff and alumni.
“It’s a team thing between students and the administration,” he said.
Lust agreed, and underscored the long-term benefits.
“If we can learn to make good choices as a young person, then we can make good choices as we grow older,” she said.