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TANG: 'Freshman 15' is real, but there is no shame in gaining weight

Weight gain is normal for college students and should not be ridiculed. – Photo by Bruno /

The "freshman 15" has been said to be a myth in college lore. But, with emerging evidence that college students gain weight during their first year due to adjusting to college, the myth has now been busted.

The "freshman 15" is the belief that college students gain 15 pounds during their first year of college. Rutgers Dining Services states that most first-year students gain, on average, seven pounds. Despite it not being the feared "freshman 15," the increase in weight is correlated to consuming an extra 100 calories per day.

Researchers have reported that college weight gain is in part due to snack consumption, consuming larger portions of meals and decreased activity. Although campuses offer healthier options, the temptation to choose processed foods increases when peers indulge in unhealthy choices, there is a time restraint or students have just had a long stressful day.

Also, it does not help that dining halls across college campuses are formatted as "all you can eat." This style makes it difficult to manage portion control, meaning greater caloric intake which leads to the corresponding weight gain.

Many students spend most of their time sitting at desks for hours on end, such as when studying or in lectures. The Australian Department of Health reports that students are found to sit more than eight hours per day, according to a study. Although this is arguably unavoidable to a certain extent, this limited physical activity means few calories being burnt.

The overconsumption of over-processed foods, along with the combination of little physical activity, is a recipe for weight gain. Levels drop 24 percent in physical activity during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Specifically with men entering college, who drop the most in physical activity.

Along with the dietary changes, roughly 80 percent of college students partake in the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, which means that consuming it frequently in large amounts not only significantly increases calorie intake, but also increases fat content since it is metabolized first before carbohydrates or fat.

Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and author of the blog "Champagne Nutrition," explained to CNN Health that "alcohol can influence hormones tied to satiety, or feeling full." Alcohol can also stimulate nerve cells, which increases appetite. In other words, the food that is being consumed impulsively is due to the consumption of alcohol.

According to another study, neurons in the brain that are generally activated by actual starvation cause an intense feeling of hunger, which can be stimulated by alcohol. So whether an individual truly is hungry or acting under the influence, the lines are blurred. Not to mention, alcohol causes blood sugar to decrease, which causes cravings for sugar and carbs.

The transition to college can also be difficult for many. Emotional and stress eating can often lead to overeating to cope with emotions. Whether it be dealing with the pressure to excel, do well on an exam or pay off student loans, many college students face stress and depression.

"Students use food as a coping mechanism for their stress and academic workload," said Tucker Jones, assistant professor of psychology at Washburn University. "They develop the habit of emotional eating which focuses on emotion and not on solving the problem and stress."

Students not addressing problems and relying on food to distract themselves from their emotions and problems can potentially lead to other eating issues like binge eating. This can be very hard to overcome because, oftentimes, when an individual is stressed or working through other emotional conflicts, they can become unaware of their own behaviors.

Life is too short to not enjoy all the foods the world has to offer. And there will be nights where there are cravings — there is no shame in indulging sometimes.  But it is just as important to adapt to healthy habits, instead of using food to cope with life's conflicts. Although the relationship between food and oneself can often be complicated, listening to one's body should be the top priority.

Keep in mind that our bodies are constantly evolving, going through changes and cycles. This is also accompanied by the fact that as individuals, we are constantly dealing with environmental shifts. It is crucial not to blame ourselves or be overly critical of our bodies.

We all require food to nourish ourselves and live a healthy life. Weight gain itself is not inherently negative. It is the habits we develop along the way that can significantly impact our well-being.

Kelly Tang is a sophomore at Rutgers Business School majoring in Finance and Supply Chain Management. Tang’s column, “Don't Get Me Started” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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