It has long been rumored that many first-year college students pack on an average of 15 pounds during their first semester of college. While it is common to put on some weight during that time, the so-called "freshmen 15" is actually a myth.

Many first-year college students make some unhealthy choices when it comes to nutrition. (ThinkStock)
Many first-year college students make some unhealthy choices when it comes to nutrition. (ThinkStock)

But that doesn't mean some incoming students don't pack on at least a few pounds. Research conducted at Rutgers University found that about three-quarters of students gained about seven pounds, not 15.

Weight gain during the first year of college can be attributed to the new environment, eating 100 extra calories per day and having more freedom to decide when, what and how much to eat. Combine that with fewer physical activities and more sugary beverages and some weight gain is likely, but incoming college students do not have to put on weight.

"A good number of students do gain weight when they first get to college because of the changes in lifestyle. They are staying up later, so there is more time to eat and drink and in high school, many students are involved in sports activities, but once they get to college only the elite athletes are involved, so their physical activity decreases," said Dr. Peggy Policastro, nutrition specialist at Rutgers University.

Policastro recommends the following suggestions to keep the first-year of college weight off:

  1. Mix it up: Choose a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins in appropriate amounts to keep you satisfied throughout the day.
  2. Rise, shine and eat: Eating a healthy breakfast can provide you with the energy to concentrate and stay focused during morning classes. Studies show that individuals who eat breakfast are less likely to overeat at lunch and can better manage their weight.
  3. Choose healthy snacks: Low fat snacks such as popcorn, whole grain pretzels, fruits and veggies are great choices. Just remember, excess calories from all foods can lead to weight gain, regardless of how healthy they are.
  4. Limit eating while studying: Try setting aside separate times to eat and study. Mindless munching while you read, write a paper or compute math problems can add up.
  5. Control portion sizes: If there are several items in the dining hall that you want to try, keeping the portion sizes small can help prevent you from packing on the pounds. Try sampling multiple food items instead of packing up your plate.
  6. Don't forget to exercise: Get off the bus a stop early, join an intramural sports team or take a walk around campus with a friend. Establishing a regular exercise routine can be a great source of fun and is an important factor in weight maintenance.

"Sometimes, first-year students coming to college drink alcohol or sports and energy drinks which can be a major source of calories," Policastro said.

According to Policastro, college students also need to remember that they can ingest a lot of calories from beverages such as soda and alcoholic beverages.

Dr. Felicia Stoler, a dietician, nutritionist and exercise physiologist with the New Jersey Dietetic Association said colleges and universities not only offer healthier food options in dining halls but they also have exercise facilities.

"Students now are more conscious of working out and exercising and most colleges and universities do have fitness facilities that students can use," Stoler said. "There are also healthier options in the dining halls than there were years ago and it's really a matter of making good choices and having good balance."

When it comes to food choices, Policastro also recommends students opt for meats or poultry items that are baked, broiled or grilled rather than fried or breaded. She suggests drinking water or fat-free milk as a beverage, limiting portion sizes of foods with heavy sauces and choosing low calorie condiments.

The Rutgers University Healthy Dining Team contributed to this report.

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