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What the “Freshman 15” Tells Us About Eating Habits

Different desserts at a buffetFor many students, it’s the first time they’re living away from home: no family, no relatives, no friends nearby. Yes, there’s the Internet, and that makes socializing easier, but a new school schedule—even for those at the graduate level—combined with dorm life, dorm food and a totally new environment is enough to stress out even the best students.

Meal options for students are far better than they used to be. Now there are salad bars, vegetarian entrees and even vegan dishes, but most dorm cafeterias also have an all-you-can-eat policy, and that often results in students “eating all they can.”

The result? Well, they don’t call it the “Freshman 15” for nothing. Supposedly that’s the number of pounds a freshman can gain from eating dorm food. It’s really more like about eight pounds, but that’s still too much in just one semester, or even a year, of college.

How schools can help students avoid weight gain
What can educators do about this? Well, at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, they educate incoming students about the cafeteria as well as the classroom, giving them a three-day orientation called “Introduction to the Dining Hall.” It’s not about rules and regulations, just some guidance for an 18-year-old facing nearly unlimited choices.

This effort was started when Robert Valgenti, an associate professor of philosophy, challenged a group of his students to come up with a dining hall project, part of his “Engage, Analyze, Transform” (EAT) research group. Part of the project involved a survey of students this past spring. Here’s what they found:

  • 1 in 4 students said they try to make healthier choices.
  • 3 in 10 said they usually ate based on their current mood.
  • 6 in 7 visit no more than three stations per meal.

The cost of meal consistency
As a nutritionist looking at the survey results, I find it troubling that six out of seven students visit only three stations per meal. This suggests they might be eating out of habit rather than customizing meals based on activity levels or need. That’s probably consistent with what most adults do, though. Having taken many thousands of dietary histories over the years, I’ve found it amazing how repetitive people’s diets can be. There’s likely some comfort in the routine and consistency.

While people may be steady in the types of foods they choose, the huge number of choices facing students at each meal—and in unlimited quantities—means they may be consuming many more calories. After all, in a dorm cafeteria, there’s no need to worry about whether there will be enough for the other members of the family. If the supply of chicken gets low, the workers just bring out more. And imagine being able to eat as much as you wanted of your favorite flavor of ice cream—every night. No one is stopping you and the food plan is paid for anyway, so there’s no economic incentive to limit your portions. Clearly this is a recipe for weight gain.

Learning to eat
This buffet-style setup is here to stay, but there’s a way to make it work. I strongly support trying at least one new food every week. Students especially need to make a point to try EVERY new fruit or vegetable that they haven’t eaten before. Almost everyone needs to be eating more fruits and vegetables—and after all, a bite of something new isn’t a lifetime commitment; it’s just a bite.

The project leader and the students who developed the Lebanon Valley project deserve real credit for their effort. This orientation is a great idea that should be adopted by other campuses and organizations. It’s also a subtle means of encouraging young adults to take responsibility for their own health and eating habits. I like that message because it’s also what I try to impart to my patients. In my clinic at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Montefiore, as in the rest of the country, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for new legislation or for restaurants and food companies to accommodate our needs. Having lots of choices is fine, but having choices also means having responsibility for making wise ones.

What also gives me some hope is that one in four of the students seems interested in eating a better diet. It hasn’t translated into action—yet—but where there’s intent, there’s awareness, and that means there’s potential for positive changes that may last a lifetime. And a positive attitude about food is a good ingredient of any meal.

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