Fighting the ’Freshman 15’

As a high school athlete, I didn’t worry much about my weight. Most days during basketball season I burned more calories than I took in and had plenty of room for a root beer float on the way home from practice.

College was a different story. That fall, I didn’t play a sport, and I didn’t miss a meal at the dining hall. And after a night of studying at the library, we often headed to the local pizza parlor to reward ourselves. By the end of the first semester, when I got home and weighed myself on our old bathroom scale, I discovered that I had gained 4 or 5 pounds.

This disturbing phenomenon has a name – the “Freshman 15,” and it’s something many young women dread. Being away from home for the first time, with no one telling you when and what to eat, can lead to a tendency to overeat at meals and to snack on unhealthy, empty calories in between. What’s more, the inability or the lack of time to burn off those calories often translates into an unwanted weight gain.

Studies have shown that the actual weight gain for a college freshman isn’t actually 15 pounds. In fact, it is less than 5 pounds, and some say that can be explained away by normal growth patterns. But if you gain even a couple of pounds every year that you’re away at school, well, you’re setting up an unhealthy habit that will be hard to break.

So how do college students avoid the weight gain and manage to stay in shape? Megan Brown, a freshman at Boston University (who doesn’t look like she’s gained an ounce since she was running track at Bonny Eagle High School), says she was initially worried about gaining weight when she went off to school because the dining hall has so many choices. While many of the choices are healthy, she found it hard to pass up the soft-serve ice cream machine, or to resist the urge to choose a slab of pizza over something from the salad bar.

“My meals also seem larger than the ones I’d eat at home, likely because of the all-you-can-eat dining style of my dining halls,” she wrote in an email recently. “I always end up taking more than I need, and sometimes eat more than I should. Part of the reason I take a lot of food is to ensure I’m getting my money’s worth, along with the basic idea of the dining hall, neither of which are good reasons.”

Brown says she has since avoided gaining weight by paying attention to how much she is eating and how healthy her choices are. But she still wishes she had more time to work out during the day so that she could go back to not worrying about how much she’s eating.

“It is hard for me to find time to work out consistently, although I try,” she says.

Because the gym on campus is a 15-minute walk one way, Brown says she usually only has time for a workout routine in her dorm room.

“When I do get a chance to work out, it’s usually in the evening so I can quickly squeeze in a workout, a shower, and dinner, before doing homework for the rest of the night.”

Exercise is the ultimate fix, but according to experts, college students can avoid eating more than they should in another, surprising, way: by simply buying a bathroom scale and stepping on it every day.

“We’ve actually published data that is showing that if you have a freshman weigh themselves every day, they don’t gain weight,” said David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University in an interview on NBC.com. “You have to see the consequence of what you’ve eaten that day to decide what you’re going to do the next day.”

Keeping track of calories while you consume them – or work them off – also works. The University of Southern Maine has links on its Dining Services website that helps students easily download MyFitnessPal, a free app that makes nutrition information easy to find, and helps students count calories and track their physical activity.

Dining hall menus also color-code their menu items with leaf-shaped markers. Shades of green, for example, denote foods that are either vegetarian, vegan, or locally grown. Orange leaves list the sodium count, while brownish-red leaves tell students how much fat is in a typical serving.

More choices – and making informed ones – would have helped me when I was pounding down the mashed potatoes and gravy and making egg salad sandwiches from the hard boiled eggs and mayo on the salad bar. But even with all the healthy choices today, students still have to learn to make the right ones.

“If you don’t want to gain weight, you can’t be getting the pizza every day,” says Brown. “I struggle to fight my own urges to get ice cream from the dining hall every day, but sometimes I manage to avoid it and grab a fruit instead.”

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