Freshman 15

Special to SunSpot

For many first-year college students, the infamous phenomenon known as the freshman 15 is an even scarier prospect than a professor who actually takes attendance, and far more sinister than a class that meets for two-and-a-half hours on a Friday afternoon.

There is some good news for those who fear the approximate 15 pounds of body weight the average student puts on during his freshman year: It's a bit of a fable!

According to a survey published in 2002 by the Journal of American College Health, only 59 percent of college students gained weight during their freshman year -- and the average amount put on was 4.6 pounds, less than one-third of the dreaded freshman 15. In addition, 36 percent of the students actually lost weight during their freshman year of college.

The report's authors, Dr. Melody A. Graham and Amy L. Jones of Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, conclude that the freshman 15 is "a myth." Graham and Jones also speculate the mere concept of the freshman 15, while inaccurate, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy for students who think they are guaranteed to gain weight and surrender to the inevitable by over-eating.

Sheri N. Barke, a registered dietitian with a master's degree in public health and the nutrition education coordinator of UCLA's Arthur Ashe Student Health & Wellness Center, agrees that the survey reveals that the freshman 15 is not a predetermined rite of passage for college students. "In my experience, some students will gain [weight]," she says. "Some people will lose weight. Some people won't gain [weight] at all."

But as a general rule, Barke says, "the average college student doesn't gain 15 pounds." And students who think they are in danger of putting on a fraction of the freshman 15 or the whole thing "can definitely prevent it." Here are a few ways to avoid first-year college weight gain.

• Stay active.
Were you involved in high school athletics? Maintain an athletic lifestyle by taking a gym class each semester to ensure you'll get a proper amount of physical activity each week. Or, pay regular visits to your campus' gym. Barke warns that "if [students] don't participate in physical activities in college, they [may] find that weight will creep on."

• Beware the vending machines!
Convenience foods can be a freshman's worst nightmare. Carry fresh fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber in your backpack, and keep your dorm fridge stocked with string cheese and yogurt. That way, you'll always snack healthy and never have an excuse to succumb to the temptations of Mr. Goodbar, Peppermint Patty and Baby Ruth.

• Eat three square meals a day.
Don't think you can lose weight by skipping breakfast and/or lunch, because the exact opposite can happen. "[Students will be] busy with classes or socializing or clubs, and then by the time they get to the dining hall in the evening, they're so ravenously hungry," Barke says. And catching up in the evening "can be a problem because that slows down your metabolism during the day. At night, your body kind of thinks, 'Oh, she's going to starve me again tomorrow, so I better hold on to all this stuff I just ate and store it as fat.'"

• Feed yourself, don't starve yourself.
If you starve yourself, you'll be in danger when you eventually sit down to eat. Barke says, "The biggest problem is that if you go too long without eating, you get overly hungry and there's a physiological tendency to overcompensate when you get overly hungry."

• Take the time to listen to your body.
It takes 20 minutes for your brain to receive the messages from your stomach that you are full. In order to make this happen, Barke suggests conversing with friends, reading a book or magazine or even putting your fork down in between bites. This will help you to savor your meal, as well.

• Water, water, everywhere!
Sometimes caffeine is essential to making it through another study session, but be mindful of the calories present in sodas, coffees and fruit juices. Water is fat- and calorie-free, fills you up and costs nothing. Barke recommends drinking a glass of water before each meal to curb overeating.

• Watch out for those keg parties.
A couple of beers can do more than just give you a hangover. Barke says that alcoholic beverages have "almost as many calories per gram as fat does. Very concentrated." Also of note: A typical shot contains 100 calories, and many additional calories are added when the shot is combined with sodas or fruit juices in order to create a mixed drink.

• Emotional hunger is not physical hunger.
For college students, especially freshmen, sources of stress are everywhere and, for many people, eating can be a response to stress. "It's really important for students to be aware of why they're eating," Barke says. "Before they put anything in their mouth, [they need to] ask themselves, 'Am I really hungry for this?' ... That's key."

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