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Before most people go away to college they hear of the “Freshman 15”.  One might think that this would cause a level of concern that could drive college students to be health conscious and listen to their mother’s “Eat your vegetables” type of advice. Yet a large number of college kids fall prey to the “freshman 15” (or 30) simply because they do not understand what can be done in order to prevent this lurking horror. Increased weight is just the tip of the iceberg. Rapid weight gain can lead to a decrease in energy and many other health issues.  When living in a dorm room off of cafeteria food being constantly tempted by the siren-like calls of fast food, pizza, Chinese food, and ice cream it becomes quite difficult to  pay attention to that big “N” word. NUTRITION.

Nutrition and health are subjects of great interest and concern for millions of people today; myself included.  However, as a homeschool alumni I was not prepared for the reality of what living off of cafeteria food would be like. Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT bashing my school’s dining service. It would be a tricky business preparing food for almost one thousand students three times a day without using foods preserved by salt, canning, etc. However, since my mother was always one to try her best to stay away from preservatives, excess greases and salts, switching from eating my family’s cooking to cafeteria food was difficult to stomach (quite literally).  

After two and a half years of cafeteria food, I am finally in an apartment where I can cook for myself whenever I want. Even better, I’ve got a health conscious roommate and together we are eating a lot of natural, simple foods that will help with our focus, and energy levels. (Plus we can have people over for dinner!)

I now get to apply all that I’ve learned about nutrition to my diet and lifestyle here in college, but perhaps this is a journey that you are looking to start but do not know how.  To help you out I interviewed Brandy Hawk, a woman who has spent the past 20 years dedicating herself to health science and nutrition. She has a degree in Health science from Penn State, and her chef certification from the Natural Gourmet Institute of New York City.  Most recently she is also working on a project called Vegawarian that strives to educate people about what they are really eating, and where it comes from.  This woman knows what she is talking about!

During our interview I asked her many questions about how nutrition affects college age individuals and what are the causes of the freshman 15. I also wanted to know about what other key factors affect our health. We are what we eat, but we are also what we do.

Brandy explained that people in their twenties are still physically developing and our diets will affect our ability to maintain weight, and increase your chances of maintaining long term fitness. What we eat does not only affect us internally, but also externally. Our skin, hair and nails truly do benefit from wise nutritional choices. That being said, the extra weight common to the freshman year of college is often caused by what we eat, such as high amounts of processed starches and sugars, but it can also be caused by drinking large quantities of alcohol which is high in calories, and the binge eating that may occur after or while drinking. Another possible factor is stress, as it is common for women to gain weight when stressed.

After what and how much you eat, a huge factor in college health, Brandy suggests is in your social involvement. Your self esteem affects your emotions. Emotions can affect your mental health, and this can easily lead into your physical health. Think of it this way, people who spend time with people who support and encourage them are more likely to have good self esteem. Good self esteem gives confidence, and confident people are generally happy. Happy people are willing to leave their dorms, exercise, spend time with friends, and try new things. The cycle continues, and life goes on. Of course, it is also important to note that getting exercise, and enough sleep are also highly influential in mental state, and hormone levels.

Clearly what we eat affects us, but this only helps us as far as we understand what we should and should not be eating. Luckily Brandy also had some good insights as to what we should avoid and what we should be getting instead of the junk.

As it turns out, it is very similar to what you’ve probably guessed. We should be avoiding processed foods, simple carbs that turn to sugar in your system instantly, soda, candy and of course fried and fast foods. It may be difficult for many people to give up such foods, so starting with one or two that you aren’t super attached to may be the easiest way to start. Just remember that you are helping to prevent, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, poor energy levels and even bad skin when you start to remove these things from your diet.  They can be replaced by healthy crackers instead of chips, brown rice instead of white, and complex carbs instead of simple ones. For quick fixes in the dorm room, natural peanut butter on whole grain bread is a great way to get the right carbs, fats, and protein.  
Instead of candy and chips at movie nights, try things that are slightly better such as frozen or chocolate dipped fruits. Crackers and cheese, or corn chips with salsa are great substitutes for potato chips and french onion dip.  
Altering ones food choices and lifestyle can be an intimidating process for anyone. Do not read this and think “I can’t ever change. Its too hard.” Many people who decide to make the change are doing it for the same reasons you are. Because they want their health and fitness levels to improve.
 The last thing I wanted to know from Brandy was if she had ever struggled with the freshman 15. It turns out that she did. Her freshman year she gained 15 pounds by eating too much pasta, and pizza in her school cafeteria on a regular basis. However she made the choice to get rid of it by becoming more active and changing her diet.  She started out in the same place you may be right now. She made it out, and you can too!
If you are interested in gaining a little info about healthy life choices, here are some good sites to start you out!