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Fighting the College Freshman 15

Fighting the College Freshman 15
Can going to college be bad for your waistline?

Going off to college can be a life-changing event. For many people, it's the first time living somewhere other than their parents home. You're surrounded by a new environment, new people, new responsibilities and even new food. The stress of so much change can take both a mental and a physical toll.

One of the most often quoted "facts" students are warned about is weight gain. It's commonly called the "Freshman 15," alluding to the 15 pounds that a typical student will put on in their first year.

The theory is that when young adults are dropped into such a dramatically new environment, they're more likely to make poor dietary choices. Beer busts and pizza delivery are convenient calorie bombs just waiting to expand young waistlines.

But the freshman 15 is a myth. When serious researchers at Ohio State University measured real students, they found that men only gained an average of 3.4 pounds while women added even less, about 2.4 pounds. In fact, 25% of students actually reported losing weight in their first year. Even after expanding their study to cover a full four years of college, the average man put on 12.1 pounds while the average woman only gained 6.5 pounds.

While some weight gain can certainly be attributed to unhealthy food and alcohol, much also comes from teens maturing into young adults. The real trick is using that new independence that school gives to build a foundation of healthy life habits. Here are three important ones.

First, start with your sleep. To concentrate in class, study the material and do the homework required, you've got to be well-rested. That can be difficult in a new environment. Use the first two weeks of college establishing good sleep habits.

Figure out how much sleep you'll need and go to bed early enough so that you'll get it. (Websites like www.sleepyti.me can help you figure it out.) If it's too bright, wear eye covers. If it's too noisy, get a sound machine to mask the interruptions. If things are just too loud, get a vibrating alarm that goes under your mattress and wear earplugs to bed.

Second, spend a few days getting your food under control. Many schools offer meal cards that allow you to choose what you want from a cafeteria setting. Instead of analyzing every detail of every meal, follow the rules of "A Better Plate."

If you're a meat-eater, fill three-quarters of your plate with whole fruit and vegetables. Fill the remaining quarter with a cut of lean meat. Vegetarians should swap the meat in the remaining quarter with a higher protein food like tofu or broccoli. Avoid foods that are deep-fried or covered in fattening sauces. Skip sugar-filled sodas and drink water. You can get a nice overview of this eating plan by visiting www.abetterplate.com.

You can still enjoy the occasional late-night food binges, as long as your primary meals, most days of the week are of the healthier variety. Learn more by taking a nutrition class or visiting your school's nutritional counselor.

Third, get out and move. If there's a gym on campus, take a class and learn how to use the equipment. Enroll in dance, learn to swim or try some other exercise-related class to keep you going. When possible, put the exercise in to break up long blocks of study time. You'll come back more awake and better able to retain what you're supposed to be learning.

Finally, avoid alcohol if you can. The students that were most likely to gain significant amounts of weight, also drank large amounts of alcohol. Not only is it full of empty calories, but it'll lower your inhibitions and you'll eat more unhealthy food. The next day a hangover can cause you to miss classes, console yourself with high-calorie comfort food and skip any exercise.

The decisions are now yours. Choose wisely.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
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  • It's believed the first pop culture reference to the freshman 15 was in the August, 1989 issue of Seventeen Magazine. There, right on the cover was the article: Fighting the Freshman 15. That editorial exaggeration would become the source of unnecessary worry and a trigger for countless eating disorders that continue on to this day. 

    There are lots of things to worry about when you go off to college. But putting on the Freshman 15 really isn't one of them.

    Seventeen Magazine