Ways to Fight the 'Freshman 15'

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Sept. 7, 2000 -- New living quarters, new courses, new friends, new levels of stress, and plenty of food. Little wonder, the experts say, that college freshmen often gain weight, or what's more commonly known as the dreaded "freshman 15."

"Everything is so new that it makes perfect sense why it happens," says Kathleen Zellman, RD, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman in Atlanta. She adds: "These kids often get into a feeding frenzy where they can have as much food as they want. They're in the cafeteria all the time, with self-serve ice cream and desserts. Coupled with experimentation with alcohol and not finding the time to exercise, they keep falling prey to the 15 pounds."

"I think a lot of it is that it's stressful," says Barbara Rolls, PhD, of the College of Health and Human Development at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "They're not familiar with the food and situations." Mom might have cooked chicken using a low-fat recipe, she says, while the school's cook could be drowning it in oil.

But there are ways to fend off the freshman 15, says Rolls, who's come up with 15 tips. College-bound students can pretty much guess what some of them are: more fresh fruit, plenty of vegetables, low-fat eating, and more fiber in the diet.

Rolls also says it might be a good time to kick -- or at least lighten -- the soft-drink habit, noting that a serving of soda can contain 125 to 500 calories. And make sure a solid -- but relatively low-fat -- breakfast is consumed. "We really are in the middle of an obesity epidemic. It's not just freshmen, and it's related to all kinds of dire health consequences," she says.

But few groups have been so tied to weight gain as college freshmen. Part of the problem, Rolls says, is that nutrition takes a backseat to social commitments, classes, and other demands on time. "We all know. We've just eaten dinner and friends say, 'Let's go out and get ice cream,' or, 'Let's get a beer.'" And alcohol, a calorie cow all on its own, is an especially dangerous promoter of overeating, Rolls says, because it's often accompanied by fatty, salty foods -- such as potato chips.


In truth, not even the cafeteria salad bar is completely safe if students aren't careful. "A few years ago, a study found the biggest percentage of fat calories in young women's diets came from salad dressings. So the salad bar can undermine the desire to eat fewer calories," Rolls says. "The salad bar can be a disaster."

Some other warnings and suggestions from Rolls:

  • Bottom line: Calories count. If you eat more than your body needs, you'll gain weight.
  • Listen to your body, and don't eat when you're not hungry.
  • Snacking can be OK because it controls hunger at meals, but watch what you snack on!
  • Include lean protein in your diet, such as lean beef, turkey or chicken breast without the skin, fish, and beans. Protein can help control hunger, and your body needs it.
  • Watch out for emotional overeating: Don't eat because you're stressed or lonely.
  • Remember that eating with friends can sometimes lead to eating when you're not hungry, or eating that dessert you might have avoided.
  • You will encounter new, unfamiliar foods; learn about the calories and nutrients in these foods.

Food, of course, is just part of the equation. "It underscores the fact that it doesn't matter where you are -- you have to find an outlet for physical activity," Zellman says, because 15 pounds can be tremendously difficult to shed.

Still, all this talk about the freshman 15 troubles one college counselor, who says students concentrate too much on appearance alone. "I'm realistic. It's a legitimate concern," says Gary Glass, PhD, of the Boston University Counseling Center. At the same time, though, he offers some thoughts on other things freshmen gain by going to college: a sense of independence, a deeper understanding of friendship, romance, and spirituality.

As he puts it in a list of "A New Freshman 15": "Gaining a growing recognition of my strength as a human being -- as the natural course of growth makes me larger in physical size, and larger in life's experiences."

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