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Making smart food choices helps students avoid the Freshman 15

By Scott Scanlon / Refresh Editor

Ahh, the taste of freedom that comes with the start of college. You can stay up as late as you want. Party, even on weeknights. Eat and drink whatever you desire.

“One student told me at the beginning of the year all they were having was waffles, breakfast, lunch and dinner, with whipped cream and syrup,” said Kyle Odebralski, a registered dietitian tech at SUNY Buffalo State.

Such free-will onslaughts start in the fall. Frazzled students with packed schedules, and maybe part-time jobs, skip breakfast. They favor doughnuts and lattes for lunch, and chips or a muffin midafternoon. Several slices of pizza, maybe with some mac and cheese, follow for dinner. Hours later, a midnight snack. Wake up and repeat – until the weekend comes, and the food and beverage quotient amps up even more.

By the time winter break comes, a new look has come with the new lifestyle.

Charissa Szpaicher remembers the whispers she heard senior year in high school when recent graduates returned for a visit after their first semester in college: “Looks like they gained the Freshman 15.”

Those recollections, and her decision to major in the Buffalo State Health, Nutrition and Dietetics program, gave Szpaicher a leg up on many other students when she started college. She, Brandon Shaffer and Megan Gawronski, all students in the program, and Carol DeNysschen, department chairwoman, shared the following Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics strategies to help students avoid piling on more weight as they start the spring semester, and trim what they gained in recent months.

1. Figure out why you’re eating the way you do Is it stress? Boredom? Fatigue? Peer pressure? True hunger? “We have a lot of emotional ties to our food,” DeNysschen said. “If people sit back before they eat something and ask themselves, ‘Why am I eating this,’ they generally will come up with a reason like, ‘I’m stressed about something,’ ‘My friends are eating and I’m being social.’ You need to be mindful of what you’re eating and why you’re eating.”

Gawronski, 20, a sophomore from Eden, struggled with weight during her freshman year and again last fall after moving closer to campus with roommates. “Being at home, it’s easier,” she said. “Mom’s making the fresh food. Now that I’m on my own, you’re under the influence of other people. They’re snacking so you’re just going to go in to socialize ... and start snacking yourself. It’s hard.”

2. Surround yourself with healthy foods Buff State students who live on campus should buy a mini-fridge and pack it with healthy choices from nearby grocery stores. The Elmwood-Bidwell Winter Farmers Market is also an option. It started on campus in December and is open to students and the general public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays in Buckham Hall.

Shaffer, 19, a freshman who commutes from Williamsville, plans meals ahead to fuel a schedule packed with classes and track practices. His choices include Greek yogurt, fruit and whole-grain toast for breakfast; and fruit, veggies, lean protein and whole grains for lunch and dinner. “It’s all about choices and education,” said Zena Maggitti, resident district manager for Chartwells, which manages food service at Buffalo State, and Canisius and Medaille colleges.

3. Be smart in the cafeteria Buffalo State nutrition and dietetics students rotate through the school’s Weigel Health Center, helping to counsel fellow students struggling with weight management. One of the biggest challenges is choosing the right foods in the dining halls. “It’s portion control because it’s family style,” Szpaicher said. “You can’t just pour it all on.”

Salad bars are an option – if you don’t go overboard on croutons, cheese or creamy dressings, DeNysschen said. Oil, vinegar and fresh fruit and veggies are better choices. Odebralski, the Chartwells dietitian tech, recommended using Choose My Plate guidelines: a half plate of vegetables and fruits, and a quarter plate each of lean protein and whole grains. “The ketchup you put on french fries is not a vegetable,” he said.

Chartwells has created a corporate-wide Balanced U program with one-word icons that help students identify foods that are balanced in calories, sustainable, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, or a combination. Its website,, also breaks down the portion size and calorie count of every menu item in the dining halls it operates. The company has done away with trays in residence dining halls, and restricts antibiotics, trans fats and growth hormones in the food it serves across campuses, and uses cage-free chicken eggs and sustainable seafood in its offerings. Still, sodas and other sugary drinks, pizza and other fatty and carb-laden foods, also are on the menu or in the vending machines. That’s why students need to take the time to read the information Chartwells uses on kiosks and in other parts of its dining operation, and online.

4. Eat breakfast, not unhealthy late night snacks

“If people start the day with a doughnut and a big Starbucks drink, all day long it’s going to be a spiral of bad eating,” Gawronski said. Szpaicher said she prepares breakfast, lunch and snacks the night before, “so I have a clear mind and am not rushing in the morning.” As is the case with Shaffer, her meals focus on the My Plate guidelines. Eat regularly throughout the day, DeNysschen advised, because when you don’t, you set yourself up to feel entitled to a bigger meal later in the day, maybe even before bed. When your body works on digestion, she said, it’s harder to sleep – and easier to pack on pounds.

5. Plan snacks Szpaicher keeps a small cooler packed with fruit, veggies and pretzels in the trunk of her car. Zucchini, broccoli and Crispin apples are among her favorites. “Buy vegetables on the weekend – they’re not that expensive – cut them up and throw them in containers in the fridge,” she said, “and the night before, grab a handful of vegetables, throw them in a Ziploc bag and you’re good to grab and go. It’s fast food but not your typical fast food.”

6. Don’t drink your calories Szpaicher, Shaffer and Gawronski are rarely found on-campus without a water bottle. “A lot of times when you’re dehydrated, your body feels hunger for some reason,” said Szpaicher, a certified personal trainer at the school gym. She shared the story of a client who was about to turn 21 and told her the party plan was a nightly celebration from Thursday to Sunday. “She didn’t realize there were any calories in alcohol,” the nutrition and dietetics major said. “When you go drinking, then get the munchies and wash down poutine fries at Jim’s Steakout with a Coke, all those calories add up. Some people don’t realize how quickly.”

The same can be said for those who make a coffee stop, or two, on campus for a latte or frappuccino – calorie-packed beverages that, individually, would take a 40-minute swim or half-hour spinning class to burn off.

7. Talk to a pro As is the case on most campuses, the Buffalo State health center has a registered dietitian on staff who can meet with students and help them create meal plans. Odebralski circulates through dining halls and the student union cafeteria, and other staffers also are trained to help guide students to the healthiest choices.

8. Stay active Gawronski and Szpaicher work out several times a week and Shaffer stays in shape as a distance runner on the track team. Gawronski exercises in the morning at LA Fitness near campus. “I think that’s easiest,” she said. “You get it out of the way and it’s done.” Szpaicher finds better results with evening workouts at Fitness 19 in North Tonawanda or the school gym. “It’s part of your tuition here, so why not use it?” she said of the gym.

9. Get enough sleep Buffalo State freshmen often are required to take 8 a.m. classes as an incentive to get up – and get to bed – early. Szpaicher and Gawronski decided on their own to keep it that way, on some days at least, during their sophomore year. They’re in bed by 11 p.m. or midnight and “parking is great” on campus when they arrive, Gawronski said. Shaffer has found that keeping a similar schedule also carries over to the weekend, promoting better health.

10. Keep track of your caloric intake

“Think about it, if you’re hungry on campus and you’re rushed, you’re going to go to the vending machine, and the choices are not generally healthier choices,” DeNysschen said. Szpaicher uses the free app on her smartphone to gauge her eating. It tracks her food choices throughout the day and subtracts the calories from her recommended daily allowance. “At night, when you snack, if you know you have 200 calories to go toward your recommended limit, you may choose a healthier snack instead of a bowl of ice cream,” DeNysschen said. Chartwells promotes its free “With all the apps out there,” DeNysschen said, “there’s no reason not to know what you’re doing.”