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Tipping The Scales

June 23, 2005

The "freshman 15" is part of a new collegian's vocabulary, along with "pulling an all-nighter" and "cramming" for a test. It refers to the number of pounds some gain in their first year away from home, but the gain doesn't have to be inevitable, nutritionists say.

"When you transition away from home, a lot of times you don't know anyone, and there's a kind of depression, which can lead to overeating," says Ashli Thomas, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who is a graduate assistant in Baylor's Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation.

Thomas says that an absence of structured meals, increased alcohol intake and decreased activity levels all can contribute to weight gain. "Students are relying on food choices in the dorms, and although there are some great things to choose from, you also can have pizza every day and fried chicken and fast food," she says. Some students aren't educated on how to choose healthy foods or are used to having their meals planned and prepared by their parents.

Packing on those extra pounds can contribute to low energy levels that affect concentration, self-esteem or body image. Depending on family history, weight also may contribute to more serious health issues such as high cholesterol, she says.

Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid unwanted weight gain while attending college. In addition to staying physically active, Thomas recommends keeping nutritious snacks such as peanut butter and whole wheat bread, yogurt and popcorn on hand for when the munchies strike. "Avoid sweets -- if they're around, you're going to eat them," she says.

Other tips she recommends include setting goals for eating well and keeping a food diary.

University cafeterias provide students with nutritional information for most of their selections, so read before you eat. Look for foods with low-fat or low-carbohydrate content. Many colleges also offer nutritional counseling and a variety of indoor and outdoor activity classes designed to make exercise fun.

Not all weight gain is unhealthy, and much of it can be natural and favorable, says Janelle Walter, professor of family and consumer sciences. "You're not through growing until you're 23 years old. Your bones are getting denser, and you better be building up those bones or you're going to have osteoporosis. There is a downside to not gaining weight."

Walter says women are particularly sensitive to weight gain and body image problems and should eat sensibly and exercise moderately, but not weigh themselves more than once a week.

Contrary to popular thought, some research defies the notion that college students are more apt to gain pounds. A study conducted in 1990 by Walter revealed no significant weight gain among new students, except in men who were underweight before attending college.

Walter says the "freshman 15" is a myth. "People say that they gain 15 pounds, but they don't know if they wouldn't have gained those pounds if they hadn't come to college."

Whatever your take on the issue, college is a good place to develop health-conscious habits for life. Thomas says staying active and being involved with friends are great ways to maintain a healthy weight. "Because there's a social aspect of eating, making other social connections will really help."

Resources for staying healthy at Baylor:

  • McLane Student Life Center -- free use of equipment for all students, offers various exercise classes such as Bearobics, sports and outdoor activity classes and groups
  • Collegiate, intramural and club sports
  • Bear Trail and community biking trails
  • Personal trainers and nutrition advisers at the SLC
  • Counseling Center (for body image and self-esteem concerns)

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