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8 ways to beat the ‘freshman 15’

OHSU registered dietitian and nutritionist offers tips to help college students maintain a healthy lifestyle
overhead view people sitting around a pizza, with books open, reading, and hands grabbing slices of pizza
Pizza and other convenient and tasty foods can appeal to college students but can impact their health over time. Planning ahead, staying hydrated, and creating a small kitchen in a dorm room can help beat the freshman 15. (Getty Images)

For decades students have feared the dreaded ‘freshman 15,’ or the widely held belief that collegiate newbies gain weight during their first year on campus.

Diane Stadler, Ph.D., RD, LD.
Diane Stadler, Ph.D., RD, LD

While some research indicates the freshman 15 is an urban myth, the excitement of living away from home for the first time, coupled with the freedom to make less healthy choices, could lead to harmful habits that may impact dorm-dwellers immediately, and for many years to come, says Diane Stadler, Ph.D., RD, LD, an associate professor of medicine (health promotion and sports medicine) and director of the Graduate Programs in Human Nutrition in the OHSU School of Medicine.

“College living offers new and exciting food options for young adults,” explains Stadler. “While experimenting with food can be an important and positive experience, some of the most appealing options, from fast food and pizza to large portioned cafeteria meals, can be high in fat, simple carbohydrates and calories. While these selections taste great and are highly convenient, after a while, some students may notice an unfavorable impact on how their clothes fit and their overall health.”

So, how can burgeoning academics fit healthy habits into their busy learning and social schedules without breaking the bank? Stadler and students in the OHSU dietetic interns and nutrition graduate program suggest the following:  

  1. Plan ahead: Schedule time during the week to choose a recipe or two, grocery shop and prepare meals or snacks that can be enjoyed the entire week. Always make a list before heading to the market to help avoid compulsive, unhealthy and expensive shopping choices.

Recipe: "Yammy” Sweet Potato & Chickpea Salad 

Recipe: 6-Ingredient Mexican-style Quinoa Salad

  1. Snack sensibly: Sweet and salty is hard to resist, especially when busy schedules and late-night study sessions take over. “Don’t deprive yourself,” says Stadler. “Instead, consider arming yourself with healthy options or substitutes that may offer the same satisfaction as snacks high in salt, sugar and calories.” Her students suggest smoothies made from frozen fruits and non- or low-fat yogurt in lieu of ice cream, or eating whole-grain cereal in limited amounts as a dessert instead of a meal. And, as a general rule of thumb, snacks that contain carbohydrates should also contain protein.

Protein Bites

  • 1 cup dry oats (old-fashioned, but quick cooking also works)
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter (or any alternative nut butter)
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup raisins/Craisins/chopped dates/other dried fruit
  • Dash of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla


  1. In a medium bowl, add all of the ingredients and stir to combine well. The mixture should be a bit sticky. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to set.
  2. Use a spoon to scoop about 1 Tablespoon of the peanut butter mixture into your hand. Roll into a ball. Repeat with the remaining mixture. This should make about 12 protein balls. 

Store the balls covered in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for longer. 

  1. Equip yourself: For many college students, access to common kitchen appliances is limited to a microwave and a hot plate. However, products such as induction burners, rice cookers and crockpots also are good options to consider for quick, easy and healthy cooking.* Yard sales and consignment shops often carry these products and other essential cooking utensils -- such as spatulas, whisks, cutting boards, paring knives, vegetable peelers and steamers, and mixing bowl and pot sets – at affordable prices.

    *Note: If residing in a dormitory, be sure to understand and follow school policies and safety procedures before using electric appliances.
  2. Don’t skip breakfast: After all, it is the most important meal of the day. Foods eaten during breakfast set the tone for one’s energy level and cognitive performance throughout the day. Choose foods low in added sugar such as eggs, nut butters, oatmeal with fresh fruit and other whole grain products.

Overnight Oats

Ingredients--For the base:

  • ½ cup rolled oats
  • 1/3 cup plain yogurt
  • 2/3 cup milk, water, or other liquid
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds or ground flax meal
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt
  • 1‐2 tbsp honey or maple syrup, to taste

Mix‐ins: (optional)

  • Dried fruits: raisons, cranberries, sliced dried apricot, sliced dates, dried coconut
  • Fresh fruits: banana, sliced apple, mango, pineapple, berries, cherries
  • Other fruits/vegetables: shredded carrot, pumpkin puree
  • Liquids: water, milk, soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk
  • Sweets: chocolate chips, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, sugar
  • Spices and other flavors: peanut butter, cocoa powder, cream cheese, cinnamon, lemon zest, ground nutmeg, ground cloves, ground cardamom


  1. In a mason jar with a lid (or any other 16 oz. microwavable container that can be tightly covered), mix rolled oats, yogurt, milk, chia seeds, vanilla extract, salt, and honey or another sweetener (if desired) until there are no dry pockets of oatmeal.
  2. Leave overnight in the fridge.
  3. In the morning, either heat in the microwave for 1‐2 minutes, or eat cold.

Tips: This recipe is all about experimenting with flavors. Try “mix‐ins” to create new flavor profiles such as:

  • Chocolate‐peanut butter: Mix in 2 tbsp peanut butter and 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • Carrot cake: Mix in 1 large carrot, peeled and shredded, 2 tbsp cream cheese, ¼ cup raisins, and ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Banana‐chocolate chip: Mix in ½ banana, chopped or mashed and 2 tbsp chocolate chips
  • Pumpkin spice: Mix in ½ cup plain pumpkin puree, ½ tsp ground cinnamon, 1/8 tsp ground cloves, and ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  1. Caffeinate wisely: Coffee, soda and energy drinks are a common staple for student living. While these caffeinated beverages may appear to help achieve an awakened state, ideal for early morning classes or late-night study sessions, this sensation is short lived. Consuming large amounts of caffeine, particularly late in the day, can have adverse impacts on quality of sleep, causing extreme fatigue and increased feelings of irritability, which can hamper productivity and cognitive functioning.

    “Just because caffeine may help a person study longer and later, doesn’t mean it is allowing them to study well,” says Stadler. “Quality of sleep is key for optimal physical and mental performance.”
  2. Frozen is the new fresh: Often-overlooked, frozen fruits and vegetables are convenient, cost-effective and, oftentimes, more nutritious than fresh produce. They can often be used frozen or easily defrosted and added to a smoothie, yogurt, cereals or soups, stir-fry or pasta dishes.

Click this link to download a recipes for Soup-erb Pho and Fruit Smoothie. The download also includes the other recipes listed in this article.

  1. Stay hydrated: “People often mistake thirst for a feeling of hunger, which leads to unnecessary eating,” says Stadler. “Before grabbing a snack, try drinking a glass of water to see if it satisfies your ‘hunger.’”

    Carrying a reusable water bottle throughout the day helps to remind individuals to hydrate and also eliminates the urge to purchase drinks from vending machines or convenience stores, many of which tend to be high in sugar.
  1. Control portions: While many on-campus cafeterias and off-campus restaurants offer highly nutritious options, large portion sizes can present challenges, especially in buffet or self-serve settings. Consider consuming only half of the provided serving, and store the remainder in a  reusable glass or plastic container. This not only cuts down on unintentional and unnecessary caloric intake, but creates another meal to be consumed later in the week.

Overall, Stadler and students suggest a mindful approach to consuming food, paying attention to meals and eating with a purpose.

“In general, food tastes great, and when shared with friends, it can be fun and social. But, be sure that the foods you choose to eat also have a role in nourishing your body. This will not only ensure health through your college years, but for the entire life ahead of you,” says Stadler.


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