The freshman fifteen—the dreaded weight gain that has plagued new college students for decades—often occurs because of overindulgence at all-you-can-eat campus dining halls and excessive alcohol consumption at parties, but studies show that lack of sleep can also contribute. Weight gain is not uncommon among college students … but neither is a full night’s sleep.
Popular news website and blog Huffington Post has announced a challenge that encourages incoming college students to get at least eight hours of sleep per night. According to Dr. Michael J. Breus, who is helping out with the cause, a 2007 survey by the American College Health Association found that only forty percent of students feel well-rested only two days a week. A 2001 study found that eleven percent of college students sleep well consistently and seventy-three percent experienced occasional sleep problems.
I’m not taking classes at the moment, but I remember drinking coffee like it was going out of style and taking naps in the commuter student lounge during my undergraduate days. Come to think of it, my current sleep schedule isn’t too far off—I work from home while taking care of my almost-two-year-old, which means that staying up until two in the morning is an everyday occurrence for me.
A 2006 study conducted by the weight control center at Brown University Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island found that while new college students may not actually gain a full fifteen pounds, many of them are gaining weight and not losing it once they realize it’s happened. Lead researcher Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown, explained “The first year of college is a vulnerable time for students. While most are not gaining the Freshman 15, many are gaining weight and aren’t taking it off.”
A Web MD article dealing with the topic features information provided by Dr. Michelle May, author of Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don’t Work, who says "When you don’t get enough sleep, your body experiences physiological stress and, biochemically, you store fat more efficiently.” When you’re tired, you won’t handle stress as well and many students reach for food as a coping mechanism to deal with stress. All that late-night snacking can add up— some people think that eating might help them get back to sleep, but all it really does is add more calories to their daily total.
Ann Litt, a registered dietitian in Bethesda, Maryland and author of The College Student’s Guide to Eating Well on Campus said that students’ hectic irregular schedules help contribute to weight gain. Students often walk into the cafeteria, grab something and eat it as they walk to class, a trend that Litt calls the “dish and dash.”
Students often have snacks on their desk while studying and eat hundreds more calories than they realize. Late-night eateries located near college campuses often sell pizza and other high-calorie foods, and most students won’t opt to eat salad if they’re out drinking. Besides, it’s hard not to overeat when everyone else is eating, and “if you can’t beat em, join em” holds true.
Researchers at the West Virginia University School of Medicine analyzed data from 30,397 adults who were asked how much sleep they got during a 24-hour period, and results were recently published in the journal Sleep. Findings suggest that getting less than seven hours a day is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
My guess is that college students are more concerned about term papers and parties than the possibility of getting heart disease, but the truth is that lack of sleep can do more harm than good. Pulling an all-nighter to cram for an exam or finish a report is going to happen every now and then, but you should try to avoid doing it regularly.
The Freshman 8 sleep challenge contributor Dr. Breus suggests ear plugs, an eye mask and a good set of headphones to listen to soothing music if getting some sleep is difficult in a new environment and living with a roommate who most likely isn’t on the same sleep schedule you are.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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