Many of us know how easy it is to gain a few pounds. But over the next few months, one population will be at very high risk: college freshmen.
First-year college students typically gain about five pounds. "It's not exactly the 'freshman 15,' " says psychologist Susan Albers of the Cleveland Clinic, author of Eating Mindfully. But, she says, five pounds can lead to more weight gain when students fall into bad habits.
Students are most vulnerable in the first semester, as they're adjusting to the freedoms of dorm life and the all-you-can-eat meal plans. But a simple awareness of weight seems to go a long way, according to a few recent studies.
Stepping On The Scale
Researchers at Cornell University put scales in the dorm rooms of a group of freshmen and asked them to weigh themselves each morning. Then researchers graphed the students' daily readings to show the trends over weeks.
"The freshmen that we gave the scales to didn't gain any weight," says David Levitsky, a professor of Psychology and Nutritional Sciences.
He says they were so surprised by the findings that they repeated the study the following semester with another group of students and found the same results.
"I think there are signals all around that are coaxing us to eat a little more," Levistky says. When people monitor their weight daily, he says, it seems to motivate them to make changes in their eating habits — if they see the number moving higher. It's a daily feedback loop.
By sophomore year, many students are aware of the bad eating habits that are easy to adopt on campus.
"Late-night eating was the biggest thing," says Barrie Ginsburg, a sophomore at George Washington University.
"There's so much good food around," says her friend Dana Curto. They recall students in their dorms making 2 a.m. treks to the 7-Eleven last year. "Anytime you were craving chips and salsa or ice cream, you could go down there," she says.
And late-night eating can throw off students' schedules, so they're skipping breakfast.
"The first meal of the day might be at noon or 2 o'clock," says Sherrie Delinsky, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders at McLean Hospital in Boston."It's actually pretty normal for them to be eating late at night," she says. And that's OK if students haven't consumed enough calories earlier in the day.
Delinsky has studied the eating habits of freshmen women, and she finds that they don't all gain weight. In her study, 24 percent of students actually shed a few pounds. And these students seem to have one thing in common: They seemed to have arrived on campus with set strategies for eating and dietary restriction. "These are the people who were very conscious of what they were eating and were doing things like limiting portions," she says.
Students who maintain or lose weight on campus may be in the minority, but they seem to stick together.
"My roommate and I are really similar," says George Washington University freshman Katie O'Toole. "We won't order pizza at 2 a.m." And O'Toole says she has basically kept up the healthy habits she learned at home.
"Students tend to mirror the eating patterns of those around them," says psychologist Albers. When students hang out with others who are always snacking late at night, they tend to develop a groupthink about eating together. It becomes mindless, social eating. "They may not even be aware that they're not hungry," she says.
Stress Linked To Binge Eating
One study conducted at the University of Southern California has found that stress can fuel nighttime eating binges. Researchers surveyed students about their levels of stress. They asked questions such as: In the past month, how often have you felt anxious? How often have you felt unsure of your ability to handle personal problems or deal with change?
The survey is intended as a measure of how well students feel they can cope with stress. The students also completed a survey that gauges symptoms of late-night eating disorders.
"As stress scores go up, there is an approximate 25 percent increase in night eating scores," says USC researcher Selena Nguyen-Rodriguez.
There's a hormonal component to the stress-late-night eating cycle, too — stress floods the body with cortisol. "This is the stress hormone that makes them crave sugar, fat and salt," Albers says.
So how can first-year students just adjusting to campus life avoid the trap? Albers says students need a lot of strategies for soothing themselves without food. She recommends unplugging from technology for a short period every day and exercising daily, even if it's just a walk to clear your mind.
"I've done exercise classes almost every day," O'Toole says. So it's not just her eating habits, but also her ability to cope with and manage stress that will help O'Toole keep the "freshman five" at bay. "I'm really pretty confident that I can keep myself healthy."