For most Americans, this week (or next) marks the beginning of a new school year even though TV commercials for sales on notebooks, backpacks, and other school supplies started airing months ago. If you’re an adult returning to school, like I was back in 2013, there could be a whole slew of emotions about re-integrating into that lifestyle, both academically and otherwise; but, there’s something about setting foot on campus that puts students of any age in a whole different frame of mind. Homework deadlines seem to pile up before the first week has even begun, sleep becomes non-existent leading up to midterms and finals, and healthful eating habits go right out the window before the first semester is over.
During my dietetic internship at Lehman College two years ago, I was assigned a group presentation where we reported on research findings about how college students tend to gain weight over the 6- to 8-week span of the winter holiday season (Thanksgiving through the New Year). Interestingly, though, the study participants weren’t “traditional” college students, i.e., 18- to 22-year-olds. In fact, the age span included grad students, some well into their 30s.
The study showed that, as seasons change and colder weather approaches, students are more likely to change their food, mood, and physical activity for the worse. Ongoing indulgences over the fall semester and into the holiday season can cause a significant increase in the percentage of body fat and fat mass, leaving students vulnerable to obesity development from those unhealthful holiday habits that may carry on further into their adulthood and passed onto their children or other family members. Increases in body fat are a major factor in morbidity and mortality which is why it is important to strategize ways to maintain healthful eating and other lifestyle habits during stressful times.
If you start paying attention to your habits at the beginning of the school year, committing to choosing a lifestyle that supports healthy eating and physical activity, and recruiting your friends and classmates to get on board with you, you may find it easier to carry that mindset over through the semester, the holidays, into the next year, and every year after that.
Consider the following:
- Head to class prepared. To avoid excess hunger and grabbing something not-so-great at the campus cafeteria or out of one of the many vending machines outside your classroom, pack yourself a bunch of healthy, satisfying snacks (e.g., apple with peanut butter or veggies with hummus) at the beginning of each week, then take one or a few of them with you when you head to campus for the day.
- Cut out sweetened beverages. Added sugar and calories will do you no favors in keeping you fit, healthy, and energized. Keep a water bottle with you at all times and drink from it regularly. Take advantage of getting free refills from campus water fountains.
- Read the Nutrition Facts Label. If you do ending up grabbing a packaged food or snack, be a savvy consumer and compare the sodium, calories, fats, and sugars in these items. Some vending machines have started incorporating a grading system to help you make healthier choices.
- Go play outside. Even if you’re cramming in a study session on your own or with some classmates, you deserve to take a break. Go for walk or toss a frisbee to each other for at least 10 minutes. Spending time away from the books and engaged in physical activity is a great way to give your tired brain and eyeballs a break and quality time with your friends.
- Join your campus’ nutrition club. A great way to stay committed to health and eating well during the school year is to get involved in activities that will guide those habits by default. Don’t have a nutrition club at your school? Start one!
- Be compassionate with yourself. If you do overindulge, try to keep your focus on the goal of long-term wellness. Remember your health is determined more by what you do on average most days than what you eat during any one meal.
- Díaz-Zavala, R., Castro-Cantú, M., Valencia, M., Álvarez-Hernández, G., Haby, M., & Esparza-Romero, J. (2017). Effect of the Holiday Season on Weight Gain: A Narrative Review. Journal of Obesity, 2017:1-13.
- Hull, H.R., Hester, C.N., & Fields, D.A. (2006). The effect of the holiday season on body weight and composition in college students. Nutrition & Metabolism, 3:44-61.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition on Policy and Promotion. (2013). MyPlate On Campus Toolkit. USDA: Alexandria, VA.
[A version of this article appeared on this blog on December 9, 2015.]