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The freshman 15

Ahhhh ... pizza for breakfast.

Having the authority to make such a weighty decision is often embraced by college students, dabbling in their own newfound freedom from the parental raised eyebrow.

But making these choices is not without cost. Schedules are jammed and in-flux; exercise, homework and friends all compete for time. Faced with a sometimes overwhelming number of choices, college students often end up gaining extra pounds. Moreover, at a time when obesity among Americans is a national epidemic, the college generation often is overlooked.

"People don't look at this age cohort as closely," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization aiming to protecting communities' health and preventing disease. "You certainly can find a lot of data showing that kids today under 18, under 19 are becoming more and more obese, (and) they're moving on to college — this is a trend that's been going on for 20 years — and clearly admission to college doesn't suddenly eliminate those rates of obesity."

The percent of overweight and obese American college students increased from 27.4 percent in fall 2006 to 29.2 percent in fall 2011, according to the American College Health Association. The organization based its findings on body mass index, or BMI, which is calculated from an individual's self-reported height and weight, and is a standard indicator of obesity. A BMI in the range of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, while a BMI between 30 and 34.9 is obese.

A 2007 study on college students and obesity published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found that obesity rates increased rapidly during the duration of the study. The researchers wrote: "Students entering college may be making independent decisions about their diet, activity, and television viewing behaviors for the first time. New environmental and social factors may emerge during this time period to have a greater influence on their behavior."

"There are a lot of choices to be made; it's a totally different environment," said Emily Schmitt, the University of Maryland fitness programs coordinator. "You have to find the time, it's not built-in for exercising, and you're selecting your own food, which may be totally different than the meals you're used to from home."

More than one-third of American adults, about 35.7 percent, are obese today, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, every state failed to meet the "Healthy People 2010" goal to lower obesity prevalence to 15 percent, according to the CDC.

Moreover, during a recent Washington conference sponsored by CDC, a study forecast an even grimmer picture for the next two decades. The research, conducted by Eric Finkelstein at Duke University, which appeared online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, predicted that 42 percent of Americans would be obese by 2030, including a 33 percent increase over the next 20 years.

Even the White House has taken notice. First lady Michelle Obama, the mother of two young daughters, has made childhood obesity her challenge. In February 2010, she launched the Let's Move! campaign to encourage healthy eating and physical activity in children.

Almost one in three children in America is overweight or obese, according to the official Let's Move! website.

But college students, it seems, are left to fend for themselves.

Justin Winsor, for example, a freshman bioengineering major, gained 25 pounds his first year.

"That number just came to me over spring break (of this semester)," said Winsor. "I got really mad at myself. I started tracking all of my food and working out religiously... I've already lost 12 pounds since spring break."

Researcher Terry Huang, professor and chairman of the Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, found that slightly more than two-thirds of 736 college students studied ate fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, which is the recommendation by theU.S. Department of Agriculture. His findings appeared in a 2003 study published in the Journal of American College Health.

Huang also found that students, on average, reported two days of aerobic exercise in the past week. The recommendation for weekly exercise is moderate intensity cardio, or aerobic exercise, for at least 30 minutes on five or more days per week, according to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.

"A lot of times when we're stressed, we may forget about making time for ourselves," said Schmitt, who also works as a dietitian. "I think that contributes a lot, particularly when it comes to nutrition — having that stress-eating, making those convenient choices when it comes to eating versus the healthy ones."

"I remember we had Friday night pizza and beer and we'd go to somebody's house and order a keg of beer and a pizza and as long as the money held out, the pizza and the beer held out too," said Cheri Merrihew, a Weight Watchers leader in Columbia, Md. "It's challenging with the unregulated caloric intake and the fact that you're often more sedentary when you're on campus because you're spending a lot of time studying in the library or sitting in class."

While these findings paint a bleak picture for the health of college students, not everyone is at risk. Some, in fact, take advantage of their new freedom to make major health improvements.

College senior Jon Butta, for example, lost 70 pounds between his first semester in spring 2009, and fall 2010. The 6-foot-7-inch, fire protection engineering major maintains his healthy weight of 260 pounds today. He is determined to defy his family legacy of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

"I knew that obesity was becoming a huge epidemic in America and I just didn't want to become a statistic," said Butta. "At the same time I felt like I wouldn't do or couldn't do things that my friends would do. I wanted to be as normal as someone who is 6 feet 7 inches could be."

Embracing healthy habits early on in college is critical, and may help stave off obesity related illness — diabetes and heart disease — later. Even baby steps will help.

"There are little things that you can do, like if you have study breaks, make them walking study breaks," Levi said. "Stand up from time to time, walk around the block, leave the library — whatever it might take to be more physically activity and to be much more conscious about the food choices you make."

"The consequences of obesity are happening earlier and earlier," Levi said, "and living with chronic disease and managing those chronic diseases will really be a distraction from building a career and from building a life."

29.2% percentage of overweight and obese American college students in fall 2011, according to the American College Health Association.

sunday@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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