By Henry Clare
The University dining experience is a world away from your average family dinner. With many Universities hosting meals in large, impressive dining halls with long, grand tables and intimidating portraits of former Principles, the simple act of eating is almost a ceremony in itself.
Dinnertime gives fresh-faced first years the perfect opportunity to put the world to rights, with everything from tomorrow’s early morning lecture to next year’s General Election being discussed over a well-earned plate of food.
One topic that isn’t typically on the agenda, though, is weight. A recent survey by money saving website ‘VoucherCodesPro’ has revealed that, in their desire to embrace the university experience, freshers can put on as much as 11lbs in their first term.
The study asked freshers from 2013 about their spending and eating habits, discovering that the average student spends £97.58 per week on food and drink in their first term. Furthermore, 67% of the 2,581 students admitted that their weight had increased in the first term of university. When asked how much, the average student responded that they had put on eleven pounds.
When asked why they spent so much money, 57% of those surveyed claimed that they ‘had to jump straight into the university experience of being social’. So, is the thrill of starting University the root of the problem? Connie McCool Duncan, a fresher at Hild Bede, believes the need to make new friends can cause unhealthy eating habits:
“The desire to embrace the full University experience and not be left out of any trip or possible bonding moment encourages even those who are normally more health conscious to get stuck into a grease-laden pizza.
“Late night takeaways are a killer. The social aspect of walking home via a takeaway restaurant after a night out with friends makes the temptation all the greater.”
Connie also remarks that, in many instances people feel under pressure to eat well in front of their new friends:
“I think there can be an underlying element of competitive eating. No one wants to look like they’re dieting and sometimes it seems that boys, and occasionally girls, are almost attempting to ‘out man’ each other by arriving at the table with a plate piled high with curly fries.
“In general I think this isn’t much of a big deal but there can be the sense that everyone is aware that everyone else is aware of exactly what you’ve got and what you leave on your plate”
Although she does believe that the social aspect of university can cause people to put on weight, Connie doesn’t feel that alcohol is a significant issue:
“I think that putting on weight through drinking is perhaps more of a male problem than a female one, because boys will drink pints whereas girls tend to stick to spirits which are slightly less fattening. I think a lot of the alcohol calories get sweated out on the dance floor”
However, Patricia Flanagan, a partner at the Claypath and University Medical Group, believes that alcohol is one of the primary causes of weight gains:
“I suspect that alcohol consumption plays a large part in any weight gain whilst at university and excessive consumption is damaging on so many levels – accidents, aggression, and disinhibition, all occurring in a new and unfamiliar environment and with unfamiliar people.
“Alcohol binges are commonly followed by fast food binges, adding to, rather than replacing, the calories consumed at normal mealtimes”
Patricia also alludes to the long-term health issues that are associated with a vast increase in weight. From a social perspective, she also makes the point that putting on a large amount of weight can negatively impact upon self-esteem, and potentially cause students to lose confidence.
However, the statistics might not be as startling as they first seem. As well as showing that Freshers spend nearly £100 every week on food and drink in their first term of university, they also show that the weekly spend falls to £47.50 by the end third term.
Furthermore, whilst a vast increase in weight is often associated with bad health, weight can be put on healthily. John Firth, Durham University’s Rugby League captain, believes that the statistics on weight often fail to account for this:
“Weight is always a tricky subject, as it can be put on both healthily, through muscle gains, and unhealthily via bad dieting.
“I believe that weight gain statistics really should take into account the gains made in the gym, especially given the ease of access and affordability of college gyms”.
Furthermore, Harry Thompson, the University’s Rugby Union captain says that, although players do often need to bulk up and put on weight, they do so of their own discretion:
“I think there can be a mis-conception that players are put under a lot of pressure to gain weight by coaches and whilst I would be lying if I said that coaches don’t mention to specific players the need to gain more size, it tends to be a lot more about gaining the strength element, rather than just the weight itself.
“As rugby is such an intense contact sport players do need to gain size to not only be effective, but also to protect themselves in the contact areas, otherwise you tend to find that they sustain a much higher number of injuries. Gaining size is a relatively simple way to counteract that, which is why I think it is frequently chosen by players – but developing your skill set would be just as effective.
“When you do find players feeling pressurized to gain weight, particularly at Durham, it’s not usually the coaches who are the motivating force behind that drive, but the players themselves. The fierce element of competition and the desire to reach the very top of their game often makes guys put themselves under pressure to increase their weight and strength”
Photograph: Rich Root