While college graduates are less likely to be obese than non-college graduates, obesity rates among college graduates are rising more quickly than among non-college graduates. One significant contributor to the rise in obesity among college graduates may be the college years themselves. While the average adult only gains about 2 lbs per year, the average freshman in college gains 3-5 lbs, mostly from fat, and with no evidence of compensatory weight loss later in life. Many of the habits identified as contributors to weight gain during the college years may also be significant contributors to weight gain after college. In part one of my two- part article on how to avoid weight gain in college, I’ll discuss several dietary strategies that can help ward off weight gain in the college years and beyond. Stay tuned for part two where I’ll discuss physical activity habits and stress management.

The most consistently reported dietary factor correlated with weight gain is failure to eat breakfast. At some point in your life, you may have heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Notwithstanding, the USDA has found that breakfast consumption decreases throughout the adolescent years until it becomes an absent habit among many college students. College students have reported various reasons as to why they skip breakfast, including lack of time, finances, and sleep, all which may contribute to weight gain. Students short on time either choose to skip breakfast entirely, which may cause the body to store fat during the next meal, or opt for something quick and easy that may be less healthy, such as high-carbohydrate cereals, bagels, or an energy bar. Taking the time to eat and enjoy a complete, healthy breakfast in the morning, followed by balanced frequent meals throughout the day, helps students not only pay attention in class and fuel the rest of the day, but minimizes snacking on junk food and late night snacking, both factors associated with weight gain.

Ways to navigate busy mornings include:

  • Plan ahead and have nutritious options available in your dorm room or home. Yogurt with fresh fruit, whole-grain bread with peanut butter, whole -grain cereals, and instant oatmeal with some almonds are all great options. Healthy nuts and seeds, vegetables and dips (such as hummus or salsa), air-popped popcorn, and fresh fruit are all great snack options.
  • Begin and maintain a consistent sleep schedule, and allow yourself enough time in the morning to eat breakfast.
  • Learn to budget, so you can appropriately designate money each week or month to purchase healthy food options.

Skipping breakfast isn’t the only possible contributor to weight gain. New-found freedom, evening snacks, parties, alcohol consumption, and increased consumption of junk food are some additional factors leading to college weight gain. When hungry, students will often reach for the first food available to satisfy their hunger needs as quickly as possible, which tends to be high in calories and low in nutritional value,. College students drink alcoholic beverages at least 1-2 nights per week and 5-6 beverages per night of drinking in surveys of student behaviors. Late night eating among college students may be routine, but research suggests that consumption of high-fat foods such as pizza, fast food, or other party foods occurs more often on nights after drinking than non-drinking nights. Some tips to help are…:

Minimize or avoid drinking all together.

  • Have a substantial, healthy meal before heading out for the night.
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the night, and avoid sugar-sweetened drinks, either alone or with alcohol, to stay hydrated and minimize any “hangover foods” the next day.

Finally, dining halls and “all you can eat” establishments provide a unique challenge to college students. Portion sizes tend to be larger, and customers tend to eat food proportional to the amounts they are served, without consideration for portion sizes. 3 The greater variety of options and the ease of obtaining the food also increases caloric intake. 7 If you choose to eat an “all you can eat” establishment, try the following:

  • Sit as far away from the buffet as possible, and give yourself time to feel full before going for seconds or thirds.
  • Manage portion sizes by choosing small plates and bowls.
  • Avoid these eating establishments altogether and eat at home or with friends in a common room where you can contribute your own healthy choices.

Learning healthy habits early helps reduce future weight gain and maintain your overall health and well-being. It’s estimated that the 3-5 pound weight gain seen during freshman year is caused by consuming an extra 174 calories per day. This is roughly equivalent to a 12 oz. can of Coke, one-third of a quarter pounder hamburger with cheese, two fun-size Snickers, or a small bag of Lay’s Potato chips. If small changes can cause an increase in weight, then small changes may be able to prevent or reverse weight gain. Having healthy food options readily available in your dorm room or home, establishing a sleep and work schedule, minimizing alcohol intake, and choosing lower calorie drink options are all simple changes you can make to avoid college weight gain. If you need additional help or tips, consider meeting with a registered dietitian or health coach.

By Amy Kurtz BA, BS, CI-CPT, Certified Health Coach
Nutrition Specialist

This article is for nutrition information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any health or nutrition concerns you may have. The information in this article is not intended to promote any specific product, or for the prevention or treatment of any disease.