Off to College? Here are Tips to Avoid the Freshman Bulge

Off to College? Here are Tips to Avoid the Freshman Bulge

The school year has just started, and I was wondering if it's inevitable that college students will gain weight — you know, the dreaded freshman 15. Then I started wondering if the freshman 15 even exists. Well, according to a study by researchers at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, the average weight gain during freshman year is approximately 3 pounds.

There was also a meta-analysis, which is a review of several studies, appearing in the Journal of American College Health, which focused on 24 articles published in scientific journals between 1985 and 2008. The analysis found that the average weight gain was 3.86 pounds, and the researchers concluded that the first year of college is "a period of vulnerability for weight problems."

So, what can freshman, or college students in general, do to keep the weight off? Here are a few tips from nutrition experts at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, and several of my own.

Eat Regularly. It's easy to skip meals when you're rushing from class to class and social event to social event. Many students make the mistake of skipping meals only to be lured into someone's dorm room at 2 a.m. by the tantalizing aroma of a freshly delivered pizza. Your body needs fuel throughout the day, not just at the end.

Go Back To Grade School Thinking. Carrying a healthy lunch and/or snack that includes protein in your backpack will make it easier to resist junk food cravings.

A few examples: nuts, low-calorie cheese, freeze-dried fruit, nonfat yogurt, peel-and-eat tuna and salmon cups. (Chicken of the Sea makes these easy-to-open cups that give you a quick protein source. This wild-caught tuna or salmon is perfect for on-the-go lunches and snacks.) Also good: cereal such as Kashi, Shredded Wheat or Cheerios. (Look for portable, low-calorie choices, under 120 calories per cup.) Fruit and salads are also good choices. Stick with fruits like apples and oranges that can withstand some rough treatment.

Eat Breakfast. Another easy meal to skip. Eat a high-protein meal. No time? Try Good Food Made Simple Egg White Patties.

Take Charge of Portion Control. Never snack out of the box or bag. It's easy to lose track of how much you've eaten. Take out one serving and put the rest away before you eat what's on your plate.

Watch Liquid Calories. You have no idea how quickly these calories add up. Have a few drinks and before you know it your inhibition is lowered and you're over-eating. Just because alcohol is fat-free doesn't mean it's calorie-free. A 12-ounce beer contains about 150 calories, a screwdriver has about 175 and a shot (1.5 ounces) of vodka about 100. Since it usually doesn't stop at one, alcohol calories quickly add up. What's more, alcohol typically leads to late-night eating binges. Also:

  • Make sure you have food in your stomach before you drink. Food can act as a buffer and delay the absorption of alcohol.
  • Know when to stop.
  • Dilute your drinks with fruit juice, seltzer or club soda.
  • Alternate every drink with a glass of water.

Go for Frozen Dinners and Soup. Avoid late-night eating or snacking while studying by getting a small refrigerator/freezer for your room so you can store your own foods and depend less on cafeteria meals. Stock it with healthy frozen dinners, fruit and veggies. Most dorms have a microwave, but if not, they're not too expensive. Within 90 seconds you can have a hot healthy meal. Also, stock up on healthy soups.

Move It. Most universities and colleges have state-of-the-art fitness facilities that often include weights, an indoor pool and a track. The gym is also a great place to unwind and let out all your frustrations. Can't find the time? Try working out in your dorm room with exercise DVDs. Get a subscription to netflix.com and stream a workout right to your computer.

Keep in mind that you can still walk. Walk whenever and wherever you can. Walk to your classes, and take the long way. Walk off-campus too. Instead of driving or taking public transit, save some cash by walking or cycling and getting your exercise at the same time.

Keep Unhealthy Snacks Out Of Sight. Research has shown time and time again that snacks you see are snacks you eat.

Stay Stress-Free. Stress can cause you to gain weight — that's a fact. To minimize stress in your life:

  • Keep yourself and your schedule organized.
  • Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
  • Exercise.
  • Create a "Stress Snack Eating" kit filled with portion-controlled low-calorie snacks to keep in your room or your backpack so you can break it out when needed.
  • Come up with healthy comfort foods. My favorite is popcorn made in a pan or air-popped with a bit of butter spray, salt and garlic.
  • Develop a Stress-Eating Alternate Action Plan. As an alternative to eating, try to find enjoyable, non-food-related activities that can distract you: exercising, shopping, going to the movies, using relaxation techniques, chatting with friends, reading a humorous book.

Dine Wisely. Find out if your cafeteria offers healthy meal options. Try to make your dinner plate colorful by adding vegetables. The more color you have on the plate, the more vitamins you're getting.

Look Around. The healthy options are there, but they may be hiding behind the cheese fries and the ice cream machine. Look for foods that are grilled, baked, steamed, broiled, lightly stir-fried, blackened, poached or lightly marinated.

Instead of lingering in the cafeteria with your friends, get everyone up and go for a walk around campus when you're finished with your meal. You will be burning calories while still socializing.

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CHARLES STUART PLATKIN, Ph.D., is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com. Copyright 2011 by Charles Stuart Platkin. All rights reserved. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at DietDetective.com.