Body image on the Hill: the Freshman 15
It's 4 p.m. on a Thursday at the Alfond Athletic Center. The stationary bicycles are whirring, half of the football team's defensive line is crowded around the bench press and the wait for a treadmill is threatening to cut into dinnertime. Does the dreaded Freshman 15 exist at a school where the gym is usually crowded and the dining hall staff can't restock the salad bar quickly enough?
A 2009 Brown University study examined the reality of the Freshman 15. The results showed that one in four first-year females gains five percent of her body weight during her first year at college. For most women, five percent is equivalent to 10 pounds. The average net weight gained during the first year for both males and females is 3.3 pounds. Students tend to gain more weight during the fall semester, which may be linked to the adjustment students make to the buffet-style dining halls on most college campuses.
In 2009, The Princeton Review ranked Colby Dining Services sixth in the nation for "Best Dining Hall Food." Some students, however, struggle to resist the overwhelming variety of food in the dining halls.
"It was the endless trays of dessert that did it," Katherine Murray '12 says. "I like sampling all the desserts, so I get a taste [of] everything."
Nutrition consultant for the Garrison-Foster Health Center, Caroline Mathes recognizes that self-control is a large part of mindful eating. "There's going to be a dessert every day in the dining hall. You have to learn your moderation, and one person's moderation is different from another's," Mathes says.
The College offers a single, mandatory meal plan to students who live in dormitories without private kitchens: 21 meals a week. As part of the room and board portion of the College's tuition, students pay three dollars for breakfast, five dollar for lunches and seven dollars for dinner.
Many students are not eating eight dollars' worth of food at dinner and sometimes students choose to go off-campus for meals. But the College does not have a reimbursement policy for unused meals, which means that students pay for food that they never actually eat.
Although Mathes is impressed by the variety offered by the three dining halls, she says that the "biggest problem with the dining halls, from the students' viewpoint, is that they're not flexible enough in their meal plans. I think it's unfortunate that Colby doesn't offer [less of a meal plan]."
"If you skip a meal because you're not hungry, you feel like you're wasting money," Rachel Goff '12 says. "On the weekends I go to breakfast at 11 and then I'm not really hungry for lunch, but I eat it later in the afternoon anyway."
Health-conscious students also worry about the nutritional value of dining hall meals. "You're not in control of what goes into your food," Reesa Kashuk '12 says, which makes it difficult to monitor calories.
Food intake is also affected by the social aspect of the dining halls. Students are busy with classes, homework and sports, and they often treat meals as a time to relax and catch up with friends. Kashuk says that "eating with other people all the time and being around other people's eating habits definitely affected mine. I don't even know how I really eat anymore."
Eating with people of the opposite gender can impact dining habits because males generally consume more food than females. If a male is returning for another plate, then his female friend may feel compelled to do the same. "People spending a lot more time in the dining hall increase [their] exposure to food and [eat more]," Mathes says.
Although the Freshman 15 has a bad connotation, moderate weight gain in college can be a positive and necessary change. "Women are supposed to have a little more fat because they're coming to the childbearing years," Mathes explains. "Men may often be underweight when coming to college...so even though [they] might [gain] 15 pounds, it might be a desired 15 pounds."
One sophomore who prefers to remain anonymous reveals that she gained about 10 pounds during her freshman year. "But I do think some of that was due to my body naturally changing. It's hard to say how much was because of the food here," she says.
After coming to college, this sophomore felt overwhelmed by the food choices offered by dining services. She believes that her eating habits have improved this year, but she still catches herself overeating in the dining halls. "I'm finally realizing that the cookies here aren't that good, and I don't need to eat four a day. Because that's what I was doing freshman year--two at lunch and two at dinner," she says.
While women are typically portrayed as the weight-obsessed gender, some men at the College also struggle with body image. An anonymous first-year male says that he "never had to worry about [his] weight before coming to Colby." Since arriving on the Hill in August, he has gained 11 pounds. "I played hockey in high school, and we were always working out. Now I'm too busy to hit the gym and it's so far away," he says.
But he thinks that his food choices and consumption of alcohol added to his weight the most. "There are only so many nights you can order Domino's and play beer pong before it starts affecting you....Girls think it's easy to be a guy, like we don't gain weight. But we've never had to worry about getting fat before, so it's hard to now," he says.
From her experience as a nutritionist, Mathes has compiled a list of common factors that she believes affect college students' weight gain. Stress eating, snacking at night, less physical activity and boredom are among the top risk factors for gaining weight, according to Mathes. All of these factors are an everyday part of college life, which makes weight maintenance difficult.
"It's learning...how to deal with the stresses," Mathes says. "If someone goes into Dana [Dining Hall] and has a hamburger everyday, it's not the hamburger that's bad. But if they only have that food every day that's against the principles of smart nutrition."
But not all students gain a significant amount of weight during their first year, and some even shed pounds. Murray was able to lose weight by avoiding snacks in between meals, which was easy since she did not keep food in her room.
Students who never had access to a fitness center before coming to the College are also more likely to lose weight if they begin exercising regularly. Even though students at Colby are generally athletically-minded, Kashuk can see the cons of going to a "relatively healthy" school.
"At first I thought it was really good because I thought it would motivate me, but I realized it puts a lot of pressure on people," Kashuk says. Often students, both male and female, become obsessed with working out and counting calories, feeling pressured by the College's high percentage of student athletes.
According to Mathes, the national exercise suggestion is to "move" 30 minutes a day for general health, and at least 60 minutes for people trying to lose weight. However, not every student likes the gym.
"I don't really like working out at the gym," Goff says, "but I do like running outside." She recommends the three- and five-mile loops to any student that would rather run on the road than on a treadmill. "This year I also joined the Ultimate Frisbee team," she says. "There are a lot of things you can do to stay in shape besides going to the gym."
For students struggling with weight, nutrition or exercise, Mathes urges them to schedule an appointment with her or a counselor at the health center. "Undesired weight gain is preventable and fixable," she says.
In the 2008-2009 school year, a total of 50 students came to Mathes to talk about nutritional issues. She has approximately the same number of patients from each class year. Males at the College most commonly seek help for weight issues, high blood pressure and tips for gaining weight. "Nationally, [the number of males with] eating disorders is growing, but I haven't seen a male with a true eating disorder," Mathes says.
Mathes uses the term "eating disorder" sparingly when diagnosing students. Many of her patients suffer from what she refers to as "disordered eating"--an unhealthy relationship with food that may still be able to be controlled.
As a nutritionist, Mathes listens to the student's health concerns and then provides eating suggestions that are specific to his or her case. Students typically decide how often they need to check-in with her, which puts an emphasis on individual responsibility. Similarly, Mathes says it is up to the student "to make food choices. It's necessary to have that learning process. It's part of being at college."
While the majority of college students nationwide do not gain quite 15 pounds during their first year, stress, food choices and lack of exercise can cause weight gain. Even after their first year, many students still struggle with body image and what it means to be "healthy."
Although Kashuk is a sophomore who made it through her first year without gaining weight, she still believes that "you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who's found a healthy balance between eating and working out on this campus."