WashU Expert: Don’t fret the ‘freshman 15’; make friends with food


Make peace with food.

Honor your hunger.

Reject a diet mentality. 

These are the important lessons that Rebecca Miller, assistant director for nutrition and dietary wellness at Washington University in St. Louis Dining Services, shares with new students. 

“Every semester, I meet new college students who believe that some foods are ‘bad’ or that they must adhere to rigid rules about when, what and how much to eat,” said Miller, a registered dietitian nutritionist and licensed dietitian. “That is, after all, what we’ve all been taught from birth. But I believe a more gentle, flexible approach to nutrition can lead to better health as well as an appreciation for our bodies.”

Miller and the team at  Washington University in St. Louis Dining Services recently won a nutrition award from the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS) for its “Focusing on You in ’22” program. In this Q&A, Miller offers nutritional advice to new students and shares the latest trends in college kitchens to support student health.

Many college students are excited for the freedom to eat what they want, when they want. Others, however, worry about the so-called “freshman 15.” What advice do you have for students who are anxious about weight gain?

First off, you’re 18 years old. Your body is not meant to be the same size for the rest of your life, and that is natural. I tell students not to focus on the numbers. Rather, I want students to feel good in their bodies and have the energy — mentally and physically — to get through their day. Of course, it is OK to work on your health goals. But don’t be too rigid or impose rules that limit your relationship with food or call yourself ‘bad’ for having a sugary latte or pizza.

But aren’t those jumbo lattes and late-night slices unhealthy?

The word ‘healthy’ is subjective to the person. I ask students, ‘What does healthy look like for you? What are your health goals? What’s your family history? What foods do you like to eat? And how can you marry all of those things to achieve a healthy balance?’ 

So instead of rules, I like to talk about the pillars of health. There are nutritional pillars — incorporating a variety of food groups within our meals and snacks and eating regularly throughout the day to maintain mental and physical energy. Movement also is an important pillar. How do we find movement that we enjoy and can do regularly? And then there is sleep, which is one of the biggest challenges for college students. I always ask students, ‘Are you sleeping at least seven hours a night, and is that a regular pattern throughout the week?’ Because if your sleep is out of whack, so is your focus and the hormones that regulate appetite.

Disordered eating often surfaces in college. What are some red flags, and what are schools doing to support students?

Some red flags would be if you’re fearful of eating certain foods or are analyzing your friends’ plates or not socializing, especially around food. That is when I would recommend reaching out for help. Calorie-counting can also be a sign of disordered eating. At WashU, we have recognized that calorie counts can be triggering for some students, which is why we don’t list calories on our menu board, though that information does exist online.

We want students to identify foods that they want to eat and not be deterred by a number.

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