Battle the Freshman 15 with Healthy Alternatives to Emotional Eating

PhD candidate Mallory Frayn discusses her research on emotional eating and healthy ways for students to tackle it

In times of great stress, students can be more tempted to turn to food for comfort. (Kristen Frier)

Oh, the freshman 15. Most students know that the freshman 15 refers to the weight gain new students experience during the first year of university due to stress and busier schedules that allow less time for self-care. Most students also want to avoid it like the plague.

In order to achieve that, they get gym memberships, join workout classes, or go for that early morning jog. Maybe they even eat nutritious meals. But no matter how hard they try, they might find themselves a few months into their freshman semester five to 15 pounds heavier.

Why is that? Are all these articles offering advice on dieting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle during university just false advertising?

The truth is that these articles are helpful to an extent. University and college is a completely different world. Many things change in a student’s life. Some move very far away from their parents, and assignments and exams can take a huge toll on a student’s mental and emotional health.

The stress from university life leads many students to something called “emotional eating,” which is a topic that McGill PhD candidate Mallory Frayn is currently researching. Her research specifically focuses on emotional eating and the effects it has on health and weight. She also places importance on interventions to reduce emotional eating through therapy.

According to Frayn, emotional eating is eating in response to negative emotions. Stress, anxiety, sadness—these are all very familiar feelings that cause university students, or anyone really, to turn to food for comfort.

While it’s okay to have a pick-me-up snack one in a while, one thing Frayn wants people to recognize is that these comfort foods can’t be used to erase negative emotions.

“It’s really [okay] to regulate those emotions, [but] the issue is that, in the long term, it doesn’t actually serve whatever negative emotion is leading you to do this behaviour in the first place,” she says.

Frayn wants current and incoming university students to know that there is a way around emotional eating.

“It’s about what tools you have in your tool kit. We can regulate our emotions through a lot of different strategies,” she says. “Emotional eating becomes a problem when it’s one of the only strategies that you use.”

Tackling emotional eating appears to some as a huge challenge, but it’s all about taking it one day at a time and developing healthy tactics.

“Simple things such as going out for a walk and getting some fresh air, [doing] a couple minutes of meditations when you’re feeling [low]” can help you fight the freshman 15, according to Frayn.

These healthy coping mechanisms help students not only deal with emotional eating, but also manage the stress they feel from assignments and exams.

“I try and avoid pinpointing weight as the sole issue, but rather [discussing] why [students] gain weight in their first year of university,” Frayn continues.

And she’s right. The weight gain should not be the problem. The problem should be the unhealthy environment that caused the student to put on the weight in the first place.

Universities need to put more focus on creating a healthy environment for students. Studying for a degree is a stressful journey, and there needs to be more healthy activities provided for students when they want to destress, like yoga, meditation, painting classes, and the option of having a reasonably balanced and affordable meal on campus.

These are the small steps that universities can take to lend a helping hand to the students struggling with managing their stress. If they provide them with healthier alternatives to battling stress than emotional eating, maybe we could see the freshman 15 lose its cultural relevance within our lifetime.

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