The myth of the dreaded “Freshman 15” can be daunting for any college student, but it could be particularly unnerving for college dancers and athletes. Studies show, however, that actual weight gain in the first year is about three pounds on average, not 15, and there are many tips and tricks to maintain a healthy weight during the college years5.
Cafeteria food rocks!
College should be a time for vibrant, boundless energy and exploration, not feeling sluggish, tired or sickly. The right food and beverage choices can make all the difference. If you’re on a meal plan at school, the good news is that cafeteria food has never been better. Competition for students has encouraged schools to up their food game. Georgia Sate University now grows most of its greens in freight farms right in downtown Atlanta. Each shipping container can yield 164 heads of lettuce in one seeding cycle. Kennesaw State University has won awards for its farm-to-campus and on-campus farm program. College dining these days boasts fresh veggies prepared by chefs. Gone are the days of soggy gray veggies. It’s easier than ever to actually want to choose broccoli over French fries, or at least with your French fries. The key is to actually make those smart choices. Agnes Scott College in Georgia has numerous healthy options, but its cafeteria also has a dessert bar, ice cream bar and soda machine. These are fine on occasion, but if you are eating sweets or soda at every meal just because you can, that will lead to unwanted weight gain.
If you find that you are getting sick too often, ask yourself if your diet might be deficient in immune boosting nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin D. While vitamin D might have to be supplemented, iron and zinc can be found in budget-friendly, low calorie foods like beans, lentils, peas, greens, and whole grains. College might be a time for a good multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement. Other immune boosting foods are things like green tea, garlic, mushrooms, mushroom elixirs, moringa and matcha.
Meal planning…more important than calculus.
If it’s your first time living away from home, meal planning needs to become your favorite subject. Unlike calculus, this is one skill you will use throughout the rest of your life. Stock your apartment with oats, whole grains and fresh fruit. Invest in a few spices and herbs. Have quick, ready-to-eat soups, stews and beans that can be heated up in a flash and save you money. Invest in a mini-slow cooker and learn to have inexpensive dry beans cooking at home while you are sitting in class. Stock your freezer with pre-made veggie burgers, frozen veggies and frozen meals. These may be more expensive than making them from scratch, but you have to make it work in a busy lifestyle.
Stress, anxiety and lack of sleep are all potential factors in weight gain.
It’s true that college students struggle with all three of these factors, but there are ways to make these more manageable. The number one most critical factor is sleep. Check out Dance Informa’s article on this important subject. “It took me far longer than it should have to realize how much of an effect lack of sleep was having on my performance in dance, and later in the classroom,” says Sara Beery, former professional dancer6. Lack of sleep leads to weight gain by making students feel fatigued during the day, which decreases their physical activity. Often, students turn to high calorie coffee drinks, sugar or refined baked goods to try to find energy, but these ultimately backfire in the long run. Manage anxiety and stress by turning off the screens and taking time for yoga, meditation or a quiet walk around campus. All colleges have a wellness center where students can get professional help if anxiety and stress become overwhelming.
Let’s talk about alcohol.
Okay, it’s college. I get it, but it’s really important to be educated about the true impact of alcohol consumption. Alcohol can impair performance for up to five days post-consumption. Performance weeks are not the time to be binge drinking. Alcohol also contains 7 calories per gram, while carbs only contain 4 calories per gram. A shot of vodka has 100 calories, and a pint of beer on average has about 200 calories, so they can add up quickly. While alcohol can make you fall asleep faster, it can lead to waking up in the middle of the night and impair deep sleep. Women don’t metabolize and process alcohol as well as men. Sorry, ladies; I’m a total feminist, but it’s just science. Women will have higher blood alcohol levels than men will with the same amount of consumption7. I know you don’t need me to talk about alcohol’s impact on fine and gross motor skills.
Meatless Monday: Lower calories, boost nutrients.
Why go meatless one day a week? Statistically, people who eat less meat have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight over the lifespan1,2. “Our data shows a progressive weight increase from a total vegetarian diet toward a non-vegetarian diet”,2. Even just once a week, eating a plant-based meal instead of a heavy meat and dairy laden meal could potentially save 200-500 calories depending on choices. When you multiply that by 42 weeks in a year, you have a calorie difference of 8,400-21,000. That could add up to real weight gain. According to the Meatless Monday campaign, almost 200 colleges and universities have embraced Meatless Monday3. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states, “Eating no meat one day a week is not only about subtracting from your diet but adding to it. Eating more whole grains, beans, lentils and vegetables on your meatless day offers many health benefits”4. At Agnes Scott College, there is a vegan station that serves delicious, nutritionally complete dishes cooked right in front of you. There is always a vegan option at the pizza station and plenty of veggie options at the home-style food station. Students today have many nutritious (and protein rich) choices if they want to go veggie for part of the week or all of it. You won’t die of protein deficiency.
Tips for Healthy Weight in College:
- Limit late night snacking on junk food.
- Avoid having high calorie “junk” food in your dorm or apartment to make it less likely for late night snacking.
- Stock your room with healthy options like fruit or popcorn if you’re hungry during late night study sessions.
- Go meatless on Mondays or any day of the week.
- Find fun ways to move your body that don’t make exercise feel like a drag.
- Be really mindful if you choose to consume alcohol. You don’t have to drink to have fun.
- Think through your meals ahead of time. Don’t wait until you’re hungry and stressed. Plan, prepare and shop for healthy options before hunger strikes.
- If weight preoccupation begins to infringe on happiness or mental health, then it’s important to reach out to your college’s wellness center for help.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Orlich MJ, et al. Vegetrian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist health study 2. JAMA Internal Med. July 8, 2013.
- Loma Linda University School of Public Health AHS2 Findings. publichealth.llu.edu/adventist-health-studies/findings/findings-ahs-2/lifestyle-diet-and-disease
- Meatless Monday www.meatlessmonday.com/meatless-monday-campus
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/vegetarian-and-special-diets/going-meatless-once-a-week
- Mihalopoulus NL et al. The Freshman 15, is it real?. J Am Coll Health. 2008; 56(5): 531–533.
- Harrison E. Dance Informa Sleep, Performance, and Weight Management. www.danceinforma.com/2017/03/06/sleep-performance-weight-management
- Cedarbaum AI, Alcohol Metabolism. Clin liver dis. 2012. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3484320