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Avoid the Freshman Fifteen

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I recently attended my 10-year high school reunion. Sure, everyone looked older, but I noticed another common trend – just about everyone I saw had packed on a considerable amount of weight. It was kind of ironic to see the former cheerleaders and track stars looking so plump. College weight gain is pretty common. It’s often jokingly called the Freshman Fifteen, even though many new students gain weight without gaining the full fifteen pounds.

A CBS News article from October 2006 reports back from researchers who led two of the largest and longest studies ever done of weight gain among college students. The researchers found that the “Freshman 15” is more like 5 to 7 pounds, but it’s also often followed by the “Sophomore 2 or 3.” Doctors are still concerned by these numbers because even gradual weight gain can contribute to a variety of health problems if it continues to occur throughout life.

“It may be 10 or 8, but it continues. That, to me, is a bigger problem,” said Rena Wing, a psychologist and director of the weight control center at Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I. It’s a lot easier to gain weight than lose it, so trying to avoid the freshman fifteen before it happens is a great but it might take some effort.”

Wondering why so many college freshmen gain weight?

The old joke about college students living on Ramen noodles is somewhat true, but most students that live on campus have some sort of meal plan. Typically, college meal plans allow students to eat a set number of meals per day or per week in the college cafeterias or food courts. Many meal plans also include extra money (similar to a debit card or pre-paid gift card) which can be spent on snacks or other extra meals. The majority of colleges and universities in the United States have all-you-can-eat smorgasbord style cafeterias as well as food courts with many fast-food restaurants to choose from. It’s not uncommon to find Taco Bell and McDonald’s on campus. I attended a very small private university and we still had a Subway and a Starbucks.

Traditional college freshmen go from living at home and eating the meals provided by their parents to living on their own for the first time, and eating whatever they want whenever they want. Students frequently stay up very late, and that’s usually accompanied by late-night snacking in the dorm rooms. Breakfast may have been Cheerios with a banana back in high school, but it’s easy to replace that with a Cafe Mocha and two glazed donuts before an 8 AM lecture since Mom isn’t watching. Lunch might need to be eaten very quickly if it’s between classes, and Taco Bell is a quick fix. Visiting a smorgasbord every night can make the scale rise quickly, too – what’s wrong with French fries and ice cream for dinner?

Many high school athletes do not continue with sports once they get to college, and the lack of exercise compared to their former routines can also contribute to weight gain. It’s usually a lot more fun to sit around eating pizza or chicken wings with your roommates than go out for a jog.

Drinking is another culprit. Parents don’t like to think about their children drinking, but it happens, especially if they’re away from home and alcohol is easily accessible. Alcohol provides a large number of calories in a small quantity of liquid – a regular 12 ounce beer can have around 150 calories, and a 4 ounce margarita can have around 300! Having a few drinks at a party can add a lot more calories to your day than you probably even realized. Drinking also often leads to eating, and if you’re out drinking at a bar or restaurant you’re probably going to consume high-calorie appetizers such as cheese fries and mozzarella sticks.

So, remember wondering why so many students gain weight? All of these things add up quickly.

If you did wind up gaining some weight during college, it’s going to take some effort but you can get the extra weight off.

Try to watch what you eat. Start eating at regular times every day, and avoid skipping meals. Eating a packet of microwave oatmeal for breakfast is a quick way to stay full, and you’ll be less likely to pig out come lunch time. Try to avoid snacking out of boredom. If you’re honestly hungry while you study, have some fruit or veggies instead of a bag of chips. Cut back on sodas and alcohol because they’re just empty calories that you aren’t even eating. If you know you’re going to drink, do it in moderation! Don’t go out binge drinking every weekend. If your meal plan is in place and you must eat at an all-you-can eat cafeteria, resist the urge to take huge portions or second helpings, and try fruit or yogurt for dessert instead of cake and cookies.

Adding some extra activity into your routine can help you lose weight, too. If you live on a large campus, ride your bicycle to and from class instead of taking the bus. Go for walks with friends, or look into the gym -you’re most likely eligible to go to a student gym for free. Ride your bike or walk to the cafeteria. Go to a mall to window shop on the weekends – all that walking really does add up.

If you live off campus and you’re able to cook in your own apartment, a great website to visit before doing your grocery shopping is MyPyramid.gov It offers dietary guidelines for Americans and interactive tools to help plan your food choices.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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