Research confirms what we've suspected: first-year students are susceptible to weight gain. As soon as they start their tertiary education, students start piling on the kilos.
However, did you know that it's not just a female problem and that male students are affected to? A study, conducted in 2006 among male students at UCT, found that 23% of black male students and 19% of white male students were overweight (Senekal, 2007).
The following factors play a role in first-year spread among both male and female students:
a) Sudden freedom
Many students leave home for the first time when they go to university or college. Suddenly, previously 'protected' individuals, who had parents overseeing their food intake, have to make their own decisions.
The freedom may prompt many students to start pigging out on the 'forbidden foods' that Mom never allowed them to eat. What better way of declaring your freedom from parental control than to eat and drink those foods and drinks that were taboo at home.
b) Lack of information
I've heard that first-year students at the University of Pretoria are being made to read novels in English (even if they study Science etc.) to improve their understanding of the language. But as far as I know, there is no rule in place at any tertiary learning institution in this country that makes first-year students attend compulsory lectures on how to eat properly and how to prevent weight gain.
As a student, you can make use of student counselling services to sort out most of your problems, but I don't think any of the counsellors have any training in nutrition or dietetics.
c) Lack of time
Most students are initially overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do. Add to this the busy social scene and having to fend for themselves, and it’s understandable that students just don't give time to their diets.
They skip breakfast, grab lunch at the canteen or have a packet of crisps and a coke, and spend the night in the pub – a recipe for dietary disaster.
d) Lack of exercise
Lack of exercise could also have a negative impact. Many students may have participated in some form of sport during their years at school, but when they get to university or college, they stop doing regular exercise. Of course, this leads to weight gain.
Few students take the time to actively participate in sport or to join the varsity gym.
e) Deadly hostel food
Some students land up in hostels that provide meals, but if my experience, all those years ago, is anything to go by, then hostel food is deadly when it comes to weight management.
The food is either swimming in fat, or tasteless and boring.
If the food in a hostel is unappetising and tasteless, which is often the case, then students will skip the hostel meals and use their pocket money to buy take-away and snack foods. And we all know that hamburgers, chips, pizzas, sweets and chocolates pile on the kilos.
f) Lack of equipment
Many students stay in pretty primitive digs and don't have access to basic equipment such as hot plates or fridges. This prevents them from preparing meals or storing perishable foods.
This situation also contributes to weight gain, because many of the foods that don’t go bad in a few days without refrigeration are not good food choices (think biscuits, cold drinks, condensed milk and coffee creamers).
g) Emotional factors
Studying can furthermore cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, and even result in depression. The demands of making the grade academically and socially – to attend classes, to study, write and pass exams, to deal with peer pressure and exposure to sex and alcohol – all contribute to making this a difficult life stage.
Some people turn to food when they’re stressed, and many favourite comfort foods such as cakes, chocolates, pies and alcohol are loaded with kilojoules.
In some people, depression is also recognised as a major factor in weight gain. A student's life may look carefree and happy, but many students suffer from serious depression without even being aware of their condition.
Those that go for counselling may be given antidepressants, which in turn can either cause weight gain or loss, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Any questions? Ask DietDoc
(Senekal, M (2007). A continuum of weight management related problems: from classic eating disorders to obesity. Sugar & Health Symposium, 'Nutrition: the sweet sense of it all'. Malelane, June 2007)
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.