Finding a Healthy Balance Between Nutrition and College Life

August 31, 2016

Is the so-called “Freshman 15” an urban myth? Is it true that college students typically gain weight, their first year?

“For some it doesn’t occur and for others it does,” says Gloria McNamara, a professor in the Health Education Department at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY). “If you’re aware it’s a possibility, you can develop habits to avoid it.”

She clarifies that the “Freshman 15” is closer to five pounds, and despite stereotypes, male students actually gain a little more than females in their first year of college.

Another question the topic brings up is whether students’ eating habits are even an issue at a commuter school like BMCC, where they don’t live in dorms.

“Both types of students are exposed to junk food,” McNamara says, “but alcohol likely plays a bigger role in the weight gain experienced by non-commuters because of its presence in college dormitories.”

Researchers are also beginning to link sleep deprivation with weight gain, she says, and it could be more of a factor with commuting students who “tend to have packed schedules; combining school, work and travel into their daily routines.”

Healthy choices on campus

A registered dietician and New York State licensed nutritionist, McNamara outlines some of the hazards that college students face, as they encounter the nutritional choices of a college campus.

“It’s a new environment with less structure than they might be used to,” she says. “It isn’t like high school, where their meals happen at a set time every day and the amount they eat is portioned out for them.”

She stresses that vending machines and nearby fast food outlets can challenge a students’ resolve to eat a healthy diet, but there are still healthy options on most college campuses.

“I like the salad bar in our cafeteria at BMCC,” she says. “Also they have some organic and vegetarian cold foods like sandwiches, wraps and other choices that are not high in fat. If all you eat is the pizza and hamburgers and French fries they offer, you might gain weight — so it’s good to at least mix it up with the healthier choices.”

McNamara also has advice for students at exam time, when midterms and finals wreak havoc on their eating and sleeping schedules.

“If you find yourself crashing, like before an afternoon class, fresh fruit and nuts are always good choices,” she says. “Fruit has fructose, a natural sugar, which along with its fiber will supply energy that your body can manage, so you won’t spike. Cookies and cake, even protein bars that have added sugar, tend to spike blood sugar, which is always followed by a crash.”

Lesley Rennis, Chair of the BMCC Health Education Department, adds that it’s better to drink a black tea or some other caffeinated tea, “rather than drink coffee or soda to keep yourself alert if you’re studying late at night.”

Guiding new students

Rennis and McNamara are not only colleagues, each is also the parent of a young adult entering college this fall.

“For us it’s major because he’s an athlete and has allergies,” says Rennis of her son, Anthony, who is just starting his freshman year and living in a dorm. “He’s juggling running track with being in a competitive academic environment and keeping up his eating habits — we manage his allergies through nutritional choices. He avoids sugar and processed food. He snacks on fruit and nuts and he’s gotten into drinking green smoothies and having more vegetables.”

While getting Anthony settled on campus, she says, “we canvased the area to find places to eat where he can get healthy food. Also, the cafeteria at his college is pretty good; they have signage that encourages healthy choices and portion size.”

McNamara’s son, Kevin, will be living off campus, “and in charge of his own shopping and cooking,” she says, “so we went to the grocery store together, and I made him stop at the vegetable and fruit aisles.”

She also helped him select some frozen vegetables, “because I know he won’t be able to get to the store that often,” she says, and explains that he already has a love of certain vegetables, having grown up around fresh produce. “I have a garden and over the summer the kids help me weed and harvest, and we make canned pesto and ratatouille together.”

Fresh farm produce is available for the BMCC community, she says, at the Tribeca Greenmarket on Greenwich Street along the east side of the main campus. And for BMCC students who are living at home and eating with their families, she suggests freezing leftovers and reheating them in the microwaves available in the school cafeteria.

Eating healthier, both McNamara and Rennis stress, helps students maintain their energy and focus in class. Students who want to talk about their nutritional choices are welcome to contact Professor Gloria McNamara at (212) 220-8000, Ext. 7213, or to visit the BMCC Health and Wellness Club that meets every Wednesday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

 Tips for Eating Healthy
  • Snack on nuts with fresh or dried fruit. Their mix of protein, unsaturated fats and carbohydrates won’t spike your sugar levels.
  • Freeze leftovers from home. Most college cafeterias have a microwave you can use to re-heat.
  • Try the salad bar and vegan/vegetarian options at your college cafeteria.
  • Give soup a chance. It’s filling, low-cost — and non-creamy soups are loaded with vegetables and lower in fat.
  • Avoid fried foods. Consider grilled, roasted or baked options.
  • Choose water over soda or fruit juices. 
  • Watch portion size. Split meals with a friend, if the servings are huge.
  • Select food trucks with vegan or organic choices and keep an eye out for fresh fruit trucks.
  • If you like smoothies, watch out for high-calorie dairy ingredients or sweeteners like honey. Fresh or frozen fruit blended with ice is a good choice.
  • Grab cereal bars with 200 or fewer calories and at least three grams of fiber and protein. Only eat protein bars (with about 20 grams of protein) after a workout.



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  • College freshman often gain weight as they leave behind the dietary structure of high school
  • Healthy eating habits can be developed in a college setting
  • Sleep deprivation contributes to weight gain and particularly affects commuting students

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