The latest studies suggest that the “freshman 15” might be, more accurately, “freshman seven” for most students. A 2009 cumulative study in Nutrition Reviews found that among college freshmen who put on weight, the mean gain was between seven and seven-and-a-half pounds.
But that is still a significant gain for a nine-month period. And, more important to nutritionists, the habits developed in freshman year — often in the cafeteria — can have negative effects down the line.
“In general, the big food service companies that often run these cafeterias have dietitians on staff. They have some healthy options,” says Debra Johnson, director of nutrition at Rehmuda Ranch Programs for Eating Disorders. “The problem is the format. It’s usually all-you-can-eat, and people typically will expand their portions in that situation.”
Full-service college meal plans commonly cost more than $3,000 per academic year, and students often cut down on expenses by choosing a limited plan. Many schools have one-meal-a-day options that run about $600 per semester.
“You could not eat all day, or eat first thing in the morning and fast the rest of the day. That one-big-meal diet can set a person up for an eating disorder or binge eating,” says Johnson.
Having counseled patients leaving for and returning from college, Johnson encourages students to strategize and communicate with their parents. Above all, before choosing a reduced meal plan, she says it’s key for students to articulate where and how they will replace those meals.
“Know where the closest grocery store is. See what’s both nutritious and convenient,” she says. “People think it takes a lot of time. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It takes a little planning and commitment.”