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Does Food Freedom Cause College Weight Gain?

college weight gainRecent studies indicate that up to 77% of freshman experience college weight gain at an average of 4-8# during their first year.  This is much less than the reputed Freshman 15 that many new college students fear. College weight gain appears to be fairly global among males and females, according to a 2009 study published in Preventive Medicine.

Is your High School Senior Ready for the College Food Scene?

Heading off to college is a life-altering experience and is filled with newfound freedoms.  No curfew, no parental forces to check in with, and no limits on what and how much one can eat and drink. 

Food freedom is a welcomed relief for some freshmen, and many first year college students thrive with this independence.  However, some rising freshmen worry about this freedom, fearing college weight gain, and lacking with the knowledge needed for balancing food and  feeding themselves well.

What Feeding Skills do College Students Need to Prevent College Weight Gain?

  • Knowledge of the types of food that promote health
  • Recognition of  fullness and satisfaction with eating, both physically and emotionally
  • Knowledge of portion sizes 
  • Ability to balance and select food groups so that key nutrients are present in the diet
  • Setting a meal and snack schedule so that extremes in hunger and fullness are avoided, and nutrient needs are met
  • Food preparation skills
  • Food safety basics

Your teen may not have these skills.  

Nutrition education isn’t a stronghold in the educational system of our country, yet.  Simply stated, children and teens aren’t receiving consistent messaging and knowledge about nutrition. Some of what they do know is gleaned from magazines, the media, and their peers, which may not be reliable resources. 

Also, parents are often “in charge” of meal selection and preparation, leaving teens inexperienced in this area.  Many parents still “plate” their teenager’s meals; this controlled approach can lead to larger portions when teens become truly independent eaters in college. 

Lastly, college schedules may be chaotic and unpredictable, causing erratic eating patterns.  All these factors can combine to create a food firestorm, encouraging disorganized patterns of hunger and fullness, inappropriate food choices, large portion sizes, excessive caloric intake, and a cycle of dieting that may be ineffective. 

The result?  Changes in weight — oftentimes in an undesirable direction.

Prepare Your Teen for Eating in College

Eating and self-feeding skills build over a child’s lifespan, and ideally, your child or teen has had a wonderful role model to reference–you!  If your teen does not appear to be prepared to navigate the food scene in college, help him or her become a food-savvy, independent, healthy eater, while prepared for food freedom.

  • Consult with a registered dietitian (RD)–in person, online, or in the blogosphere–for basic nutrition education and cooking skill development
  • Invest in or check out credible nutrition resources from the library–those written by RD’s are particularly helpful
  • Seek out other reliable nutrition websites, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  • Join your teen for a basic cooking class, or conduct one in your home–check out your local grocer or cooking school
  • Allow your teen freedom to cook and experiment in the kitchen
  • Teach your teen how to shop for food, how to read a nutrition label, and how to dine out in restaurants

Parents often assume that teens who are heading to college instinctively know this stuff but they don’t! 

Unless you have invested the time in preparing your child for independent eating at college (which ideally has been occurring throughout childhood), they may not have the skills required to maintain a stable weight and a healthy body. 

The resulting situation can be upsetting for everyone.  Help your child feel confident and ready for the food freedom and independent eating that college undoubtedly provides and avoid college weight gain. 

Nutrition “know-how” can be a wonderful graduation gift for your teen that can last a lifetime!

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  1. Great article! I know that food freedom meant the extra 15 pounds for me. Thankfully I chose nutrition as my major and learned the necessary skills needed to eat right!

    1. Thanks Alysa! Nutrition knowledge and awareness can surely be an effective antidote to unwanted weight gain in college. Glad it worked for you! Me too.