Campus weight gain mostly myth, but student diets found lacking


CORVALLIS - As college students make their way home for the holidays, odds are there will be no evidence of the dreaded "freshman 15."

"The 'freshman 15,' which refers to the pounds students could gain during their first year away at college, is greatly exaggerated," said Ann Marchant, dietitian at Oregon State University's Student Health Services. "But that doesn't mean students are always making the right diet choices.

"What we hear about is that one student who gains weight," said Marchant, who holds an OSU master's degree in human nutrition and is a registered dietitian.

"Preliminary studies of college student diets and nutritional needs indicate only a modest increase in weight for college students - about five pounds for women and three pounds for men," Marchant said. "These small gains are averages. There are some that gain more, and some that lose weight at college."

The key to maintaining optimal weight is to simply build a healthy lifestyle, Marchant said. Students need to get enough exercise, enough sleep, and enough good food.

Most colleges and universities offer support to students who need help or have questions about diet, exercise or other health concerns. At OSU, Student Health Services offers one-on-one counseling, as well as number of health and wellness programs throughout the year. A "wellness" residence hall is also available for students focusing on healthy lifestyles.

At the campus' Dixon Recreation Center there are a number of fitness programs and exercise opportunities for students, faculty and staff, along with free nutritional analysis and advice provided by Marchant and advanced nutrition students.

It is ultimately up to the individual what health choices they will make, she said, adding that one choice that should be on the "out list" is dieting.

"If it is not broken, don't fix it," she said. "I'm firmly opposed to dieting, unless there is a medical reason. The 'perfect' model's body seen in our marketing media is neither normal nor healthy. I call the tremendous salaries commanded by models 'hazard pay.' The best approach to eating is to pursue a healthy lifestyle and then let your body do what it will.

"I try to educate on how to eat sensibly. Life on campus mimics the real world in many ways. Now we have food malls on campus and students can pick and choose their own meals. A wide selection is available of both healthful and unhealthful food - so it all comes down to what you choose. "First of all, you should like what you eat," Marchant said. "There is plenty of good food that promotes health."

Marchant cautions against one of the hidden dangers in the American diet - soft drinks. A typical 12-ounce serving is 150 calories, but many students consume several "super-size" sodas a day for 1,000 calories or more of just sugar water.

"Soda consumption is something that has really changed in the last 20 years," she said. "Humans did not evolve drinking soda, we evolved drinking water. We don't have a very good mechanism for detecting liquid calories."

Another step that goes a long way toward boosting nutrition is fruits and vegetables.

"One thing that we see is that students drop down in vegetable and fruit consumption in college. They are available in the dining halls, but mother isn't there to insist on their consumption."

A quick, easy remedy is to keep bags of oranges, apples, carrots and other healthy snacks readily available, she said.

"Don't be shy about sharing the bounty with friends. It's amazing how many carrots people eat when they are sitting out in a bowl."

Marchant said that colleges and universities often have an environment "that allows one to live on 'junk food.'" The same environment, she added, provides all the good, healthy choices available in the wider world.

"Part of the education available here is learning how to choose," Marchant said. "There is never going to be a better time to lay down the foundations of a healthy lifestyle."