It's difficult to imagine a standard coming-of-age experience that involves more change, more stress, and more personal challenge than Freshman year of college.
That food might become a way for many to deal with those stresses is hardly surprising. Weight gain in the first year of college, often jokingly referred to as the "Freshman 15" (meaning pounds), is so common it has become a clichÃ©. The fact that this Freshman weight gain is so commonplace disguises the fact that it is often a sign of a young person having difficulty coping with the stresses of a new life.
"Food becomes a way to exert control for many Freshmen when they feel little control in many areas of their lives," Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, tells WebMD. "I work with young people all the time who have gotten into poor lifestyle choices and a disordered way of eating."
"These are serious issues," says Carol Holland, DrPH, an associate professor and a psychologist in the counseling center at Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania, tells WebMD. "Gaining 10 or 15 pounds isn't always a big deal, but it could be a sign that a young person does not have the coping skills needed given the stresses [he or she is] under. That's something parents want to be aware of."
"For many students, college life is starting over from square one," says Holland, who is also a spokesman for the American College Counseling Association. "They have all new friends, academic demands, boy-girl relationships, money worries, and easily available alcohol. They come in thinking that, 'Oh, it can't be that much different,' but quickly they are neck deep into a real time of difficult transformation."
Overeating, says Holland, can place all these stresses at a distance. Socialization is easier when food is around. Calorie-dense alcohol can stand in for self-confidence. Holland calls this "emotional eating."
"They don't have the support system of friends, family, and activities that they had in high school, so they use what's available, namely food, to self-soothe," she adds.
So how can you keep this situational overeating in check?
Get in a regular pattern of eating, Kimball suggests. "Eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner," she says. "Don't skip meals, and keep a healthy, satisfying snack on hand [such as] peanut butter, cheese, or fruit to help with cravings."
Eat things you enjoy, but start to exert some choice, she says. "Don't let situations force you to eat when you're not hungry. And be particularly wary of the kind of late-night pizza and junk food binges that are so common to college life."
See what options you have for eating on campus and try to put together a healthy food plan that uses what you have around you that is easy and convenient, she suggests.
Avoid alcohol, Kimball says. "Binge drinking is a big problem, and kids need to set their own limits and boundaries. Alcohol can be a huge factor in Freshman weight gain."
Also, don't stop exercising. "Many kids who were active in sports programs in high school stop exercising altogether. That's terrible," Holland tells WebMD. "Most schools have some kind of student sports center, and it is vital to stay out of the habit of driving across campus to go to class that so many student fall into."
The flip side of this weight gain is disordered eating, especially excessive exercise, anorexia, and bulimia. It's a kind of Freshman 15 in reverse, only more serious.
"I see this disordered eating in people on campuses as they try to prevent the Freshman 15 weight gain," says Kimball. "We see overexercise, bingeing and purging, and anorexia. The worry over weight gain actually triggers an eating disorder."
She says that for young women, especially those who end up in a living situation with other women who have similar concerns, such as sorority houses, eating disorders can quickly snowball. She adds that the form the eating disorder takes depends on the person and the underlying psychological stresses at work.
"Some kids will rapidly lose 20 pounds and are exercising six hours a day or eating 1,200 calories a day," Kimball said. "Parents and friends are freaking out and don't know what to do. A certain number of these kids will self-correct the problem over a year or two, but a significant number will need some kind of counseling."
Holland agrees. "You see the same percentage of people with eating disorders on campus as you do in the general population. You also have some who arrive at school with an eating disorder already in place. Some will engage in these behaviors but will pull out of it quickly. For others it can become a lifelong struggle. That's why it's so important to get help and counseling right away on campus."
How can a parent help? The first thing to do is to talk.
"Parents can help by being concrete," says Holland. "Don't focus on the symptom. Ask your child, 'What's really going on?' You want to be aware of the problem and not minimize it, and part of that is intervening early by taking it seriously."
Campus counseling centers can be a big help, not just for eating disorders but for many types of problems that plague Freshmen. And both Holland and Kimball recommend that parents make every use of them.
"These students are on their own with the freedom to do what they want, and it takes most awhile to get a handle on that," says Kimball. "They're likely to need some help along the way."