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Fighting the Freshman 15: College campuses, restaurants are high-risk environments for overeating, professor says

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The transition to college means plenty of new additions to a student’s life. New telephone numbers are programmed into the cell phone. New books take up space in the backpack. And, increasingly, new pounds fill out the waistline.

It’s unlikely that a student will come to campus without having been warned about the “freshman 15,” the weight gain associated with college life. And while not all students gain weight during the first year at college, studies have shown that more than half of them do.

Gayle Timmerman
Dr. Gayle Timmerman is associate professor and assistant dean of the undergraduate program in the School of Nursing.

According to Dr. Gayle Timmerman, associate professor in the School of Nursing at The University of Texas at Austin, college students face the same challenges as everyone else when it comes to maintaining their weight. They just face them all at once.

“There are a lot of transitions, especially for a freshman,” Timmerman says. “You may be away from home for the first time. You may have to live with someone you may or may not like. There are a lot of expectations and a lot of new demands.

“In the realm of emotional eating, eating to cope with stress is quite common. And all of these transitions can lead to stress for students.”

College students arrive without the routines that might have defined their lives in their family homes, and establishing new routines for exercise and healthy eating can be tricky. Timmerman also found that once a routine is established, maintaining it can be difficult. In a study she conducted with college students, students reported additional barriers to achieving their lifestyle goals related to exercise and nutrition even after their initial success.

“They got out of their routines for things like Thanksgiving break,” Timmerman says. “Or they’d get sick mid-semester or get stressed out with deadlines and papers due. Problems occur when they fall off of the wagon, and can’t seem to get back into the routine.”

And then there’s the food. College students face a world of food choices. While Timmerman is quick to point out that at the Division of Housing and Food Services at the university makes it a priority to offer healthy food options, a college campus can be a virtual minefield for someone trying to eat sensibly.

Late night pizza deliveries, sugar-laden study breaks, giant frothy coffeehouse drinks and an array of fast food possibilities create a potentially unhealthy food environment. In fact, experts have begun calling such environments “obesogenic” for the way they are conducive to weight gain. In an obesogenic environment, overeating is to be expected.

Person being weighed on a scale

Tips for preventing weight gain for freshmen
(and everyone else) from Dr. Gayle Timmerman

  1. Establish an exercise routine and schedule it into your day. It’s even better if you can find a buddy to hold you accountable for showing up. Exercise is key to preventing weight gain, though it’s less helpful at losing weight once the pounds have added up.
  2. Plan study snacks ahead of time. Studying is a high-risk time for students, so have a plan. Ask yourself the question, “What can I snack on that will have a small calorie impact and still get me through?”
  3. When eating out, share a meal or box half the meal to take home. Large restaurant portions contribute to weight gain. Plan to eat half and offer the other half to a friend or box it up and get it out of your visual sight.
  4. Try eating in your dorm room. Cereal, cereal bars, replacement meals like a Lean Cuisine and other foods that don’t require extensive preparation can mean the difference between a restaurant binge and a sensible diet.
  5. Get your five fruits and vegetables. Skip the fried okra and French fries and pick up an apple in the cafeteria line.
  6. Watch out for sodas and other sugar-filled drinks. Sodas, energy drinks and coffee drinks can put you on the fast track to weight gain. They add calories to the diet without easing hunger.
  7. Monitor your weight. Timmerman suggests you weigh in once a week to catch any weight gain early. It’s a lot easier to deal with the weight when you’ve gained five pounds than when you’ve gained 15.

Overeating, in particular binge eating, has been Timmerman’s primary area of research for her entire career. A binge is defined as the uncontrolled consumption of a large amount of food. Timmerman studies binges that occur without subsequent purging behavior, which is often a component of eating disorders like bulimia. She notes that the perception of being out of control and unable to stop eating is a key element of binging.

A binge may happen after a particularly rough day, or it may occur when a meal tastes so good you can’t stop eating, even after you’re stuffed. Timmerman admits that binging may be a byproduct of a culture that is obsessed with food, weight and dieting.

“I think in part the idea of a binge is socially constructed,” Timmerman says, “because it isn’t a binge without feeling out of control. And why would you feel out of control unless you had certain ideas about what was in control or what you should be eating?”

Negative emotions often play a big part in whether someone binges. This is important for new students who may be dealing with the challenges of a new environment, homesickness and the work of setting up a new life. Unmanaged stress and negative emotions may lead to binge eating.

Timmerman’s latest research is focused on restaurant eating and binging. She decided to look more closely at restaurant eating when she discovered that 50 percent of all binges sampled in her study occurred in restaurants. That statistic surprised her.

A binge seemed like something relegated to the privacy of the home—the football fan with a plate of chicken wings or the individual repeatedly scooping from the pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It turns out binges may happen just as often outside the home in restaurants.

In part, this may reflect people’s attitudes toward restaurants. Research has shown that people think of restaurant eating as an indulgence. People go to restaurants because they enjoy being served and eating what they want. It feels to them like a special occasion and they enjoy splurging.

“That only works if you’re eating out once a week or once a month,” Timmerman says. “But if you’re eating out every day, can you afford, health-wise or pound-wise, to indulge yourself that frequently?”

Frequently is the operative word. Americans are eating in restaurants more often than ever before. In fact, about 38 percent of all meals and 24 percent of all snacks are consumed at restaurants, and the numbers are only increasing. College students living in dorms may eat out for every meal, effectively eating all of their meals in a restaurant or cafeteria setting.

“We know that generally people consume more calories on the days that they eat out,” Timmerman says. “Over time those extra calories add up into extra pounds. For people who tend toward binging, restaurants are often high risk environments that encourage loss of control over eating.”

Numbers on a weight scaleWeight Management
Resources on Campus

University Health Services has professionals on staff to work with students concerned about weight management and their health in general. Interested students can check out the following, or go to the Web site to learn even more.

Health Promotion Resource Center: Find out about classes, read articles or check out books or yoga CDs from the lending library.

Non-Diet Weight Management Class: This free class meets for six weeks and teaches you how to sustain a healthy weight for life.

Quick and Healthy Meal Planning Class: In just two hours, a trained dietician can teach you how to apply good nutrition in your daily life.

Diet Analysis: Download a form online and record everything you eat and drink for three days for an analysis of how well you’re eating.

UT Counseling and Mental Health Center: Mental health professionals are available to assist students with the daily challenges of student life. Services are confidential.

When individuals binge in a restaurant, they are most likely to do so with breads and pasta, sweets and high fat meat items. They binge at lunch and dinner, and binges are most likely to happen on weekends.

Both men and women tend to overeat in restaurants and sometimes indulge in binges, but different factors are at play, Timmerman found. Men and women have some differences in the strategies used to managing their weight when eating out.

For example, women are more likely than men to share an appetizer or substitute it for a meal, have salad as the main course, order the salad dressing on the side or get half of the meal boxed up to take home. Neither women nor men are likely to have the bread or chip basket removed from the table, ask the chef to alter the menu item to reduce its fat or calorie content or eat a snack before going out to eat.

In many ways, men and women face the same challenges when eating out.

“Everyone thought a barrier to healthy eating in restaurants was that the food tastes too good and it’s difficult to pay attention to their body cues of being full, especially in a social environment,” Timmerman says. “And many didn’t know the calorie count of restaurant foods.”

Understanding calorie counts and portion sizes and being able to sort the healthy food options from the unhealthy is critical for people trying to maintain their weight. Both on the college campus and off, our food environments are becoming increasingly risky to the waistline.

Timmerman recommends students use the resources at University Health Services, which offers healthy meal planning classes and non-diet weight management classes. And she offers some tips of her own. (See accompanying sidebars.) Overall, she says that avoiding weight gain takes planning and determination.

“Unfortunately with the current obesogenic food environment, none of us have the luxury of ignoring our weight,” Timmerman says. “Given that weight gain increases the health risks for diabetes and heart disease and that losing weight is usually a struggle, preventing weight gain is critical.

“For freshmen, that means that they need to make healthy food choices and exercise one of their many priorities as they transition into adulthood.”

BY Vivé Griffith

Photos: Christina Murrey

Editor’s Note: The banner photograph for this story has elicited some response from readers, who are concerned it sends a negative message to women in the university community. Members of the Office of Public Affairs work collaboratively each week to create images for the home page banner that will reflect the subject of our story and attract the attention of readers, both on and off campus. Our intention was never to suggest that a certain weight was appropriate or inappropriate for any individual or that weight is an issue primarily for women. We apologize if the image was interpreted this way by some of our readers and appreciate receiving comments from them. We value these responses and they will inform our work on future banner visuals.

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  Updated 18 September 2006
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