Battling the bulge: A few tips to preventing first-year weight gain

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

It takes only two small words to strike fear into the hearts of incoming college students: "Freshman 15."

Though some students are triumphing in the battle of the bulge, others come home with more than another year of school under their belts -- a few extra pounds, too.

Starting college means change for everyone. Nostalgic parents send their children off to brave the world alone, and for the first time, students are given total freedom. Unfortunately for some new students, total freedom means letting themselves go, healthwise.

Studies show that some amount of weight gain among college freshman is not only common but virtually inevitable.

Most on-campus cafeterias offer all-you-can-eat buffets to ensure that there's something for everyone. Students could take this as a challenge to see how much they really can eat.

Lee Anne Lambert, a registered dietitian in Cape Girardeau, said the No. 1 cause of weight gain among college freshman is food choices.

University food services are in a tough spot, she said, because they're trying to provide for both the needs and wants of students. Campus cafeterias can't limit their menus solely to healthy choices because many students want other foods, too, she explained.

"At home, a lot of parents will have a more well-balanced meal," Lambert said, noting that fruits and vegetables are often left out of a college student's diet.

Though healthy foods are available, she explained, many students will eat a hamburger and fries every day because the choice is now entirely in their hands.

Avoiding unhealthy choices would certainly help the situation, but a portion of the problem lies not in what the students eat, but in how much.

Christi Shafer, assistant director of residential dining services at Southeast Missouri State University and a registered dietitian, said that many students don't understand what a correct portion size is.

"Portion is everything," Shafer said. "You can eat everything in the world that you want, it's all in how much you eat of it."

Many students don't intend to overeat, she explained, but don't realize that they are taking in far more calories than they need. Both experts agreed that other chief causes of the freshman 15 included stress, late-night binges and lack of physical activity.

The best way for new college students to avoid weight gain, Shafer said, is to open their eyes to the situation.

"Just being more aware and more health conscious" is a great start, she said.

At this point in their lives, young adults are developing their own habits.

"If they're taught correctly from the beginning, hopefully they'll take some of this with them," Shafer said.

Generally, health information is made available through the student's college or university. Southeast, for example, has implemented a new Balanced Choice Program which identifies foods campuswide that meet a certain health standard. This way, when given several options, students are able to spot the healthier choices.

Additional information like food pyramids and portion control guides can be easily accessed online.

Another simple way to offset a few extra pounds is for co-eds to make sure they exercise regularly. Walking everywhere is a great start. Scheduling classes in different buildings and then walking between them or parking in a far lot are easy ways to walk off the pounds, Shafer said.

Many college campus are equipped with fitness centers that are free to students. Making use of these as often as possible can also be beneficial.

In the end, the best defense is learning good habits now and making a conscious choice to implement them in college, unsupervised.

Melissa Sirrine is a student at Brigham Young University interning at the Southeast Missourian.

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