Aug. 24, 2007

Bright lights, noise, groups and large plates can put on 'freshman 15,' nutritionist warns

"All that good stuff will still be there, so don't worry about not getting enough," Cornell Dining's nutritionist Michele Wilbur told freshmen at Appel Commons, Aug. 22. As part of Cornell's Discovery Days events, Wilbur shared tips with new students on how to avoid the "freshman 15" and eat healthfully on campus.

The term freshman 15 refers to the 15 pounds that students typically gain during their first year at college. "Research shows that the freshman 15 does exist. For some people it might be freshman 8, but for others it might be freshman 25," said Wilbur. She suggested that students help themselves to a little less because of our tendency to clean our plates.

There are 31 eateries on campus, offering many food options at almost any time. "Large portions and less activity are some of the main problems for weight gain," said Wilbur, who, with food marketing professor Brian Wansink, will teach Foodology 101, a two-part series on food, this semester for first-year students. "This is a new environment with many new choices," she said.

Using charts, Wilbur compared the size and calorie content of various food items from 20 years ago with those of today.

"One chocolate cookie used to be … 55 calories," Wilbur pointed out. "Nowadays cookies are usually … 275 calories."

Not only are food items much bigger but so also are portions and serving utensils. Freshmen also tend to eat more because of their environment. "Research has found that people tend to eat 30 to 50 percent more when they are eating in groups," Wilbur said. "Brighter light and more noise also make people eat more."

Lifestyle change is another factor. "When you are at home, often there is no refill when the food is gone. Here, there is always more," she said. Skipping meals, drinking more alcohol, experiencing more stress and having less physical activity also contribute to weight gain, she said.

Guiding students through the North Star dining hall in Appel Commons after her presentation, Wilbur encouraged students to ask for such alternatives as egg-white omelets and grilled or baked items in place of fried ones. Whole-grain products and low-fat salad dressing, she said, are also available at most eateries on campus as are many different vegetable options to "stuff your sandwiches."

"Lots of people have wrong perceptions of what healthy eating is," Wilbur said at the "make your own sushi" stand. "When you use two cups of rice, you are rolling up lots of calories." The beverage stand is another calorie-collecting place. "Fruit juice actually contains more calories than soda, so eat fresh fruit instead," she suggested.

Wilbur also recommended using larger plates for salad and veggies but smaller ones for pizza, and to think about the frequency of eating comfort foods. "Perhaps treat yourself only once for dessert instead of at every meal," she said.

Wilbur also warned students about the "20-minute rule" -- it takes 20 minutes for the brain to register that your stomach is full and to signal that it is time to stop. "If you wait for 20 minutes, or even five minutes, you are less likely to overeat," Wilbur said.

Graduate student Zheng Yang is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.