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Why college freshman gain weight and tips to stay slim

The “Freshman 15,” the notion that college students gain 15 pounds during their first year away from home, is a daunting concept – though a recent study at Auburn University in Alabama has shown that that number may be closer to 5 pounds. Regardless, weight gain during college is common phenomena. Whether you are fighting the Freshman 5 (or 15) or hoping to prevent piling on the college-induced pounds, read on for diet tips to stay svelte while working towards your degree.

College Girls eating Pizza

Reasons for freshman weight gain

Why do some college students gain weight, even if they previously never had a weight problem? “It is common for teens to gain weight after leaving home,” says Karen Lamphere, MS, CN, Washington-based nutritionist and owner of Whole Foods Nutrition.

She attributes much of the weight gain to the stress of living away from home for the first time, combined with the difficulty many students have in choosing healthy foods when presented with so many inexpensive fast food options around campus.

“Teens that have had nutrition education at home and have grown up with healthy foods will likely not have as much of a problem,” Lamphere says, adding that “unfortunately, this is not the case for many teenagers.”

Weight gain isn’t a college rite of passage

Freshman weight gain is far from inevitable. Some students maintain their weight, and others even lose a few pounds. Preventing excessive weight gain during freshman year ultimately comes down to making healthy choices. Many students eat whatever is the most convenient to grab and go, but Lamphere insists that there are nutritious alternatives for many of these unhealthy go-to snacks.

Healthy choices that help halt the Freshman 15

1. Change your drink of choice. Instead of high-sugar and calorie-laden soft drinks, opt for fruit juice diluted with sparkling mineral water. You can also make your own Italian sodas by mixing club soda with a shot of sugar-free flavored syrups. And don’t think a diet soda is the best choice just because it’s calorie-free – try these healthier selections instead.

2. Snack smarter. Avoid the dorm vending machine, which is full of high-fat, high-calorie junk food. Trail-mix with nuts, seeds and dried fruit is a much healthier snack than chips. Even a peanut butter and banana sandwich is a far better choice than a candy bar or other convenience food. Try protein-rich snacks like hard-cooked eggs, cheese, nuts, or protein shakes to curb your mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack attacks.

3. Savvy substitutions. Executive Chef Kevin Roberts, also known as The Food Dude, lectures at universities across the country about the “Freshman 15.” He says that “small choices make a world of a difference” and suggests opting for grilled chicken instead of a fast-food burger, choosing whole wheat bread over white bread and using mustard or hot sauce instead of mayonnaise and ranch dressing, which can be very fattening.

4. Navigating the cafeteria. Mary Ellen Bingham MS, RD, CDN is the campus nutritionist for Chartwells at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. She suggests filling up your plate at the school cafeteria with whole grains, fruit, vegetables, lean protein like turkey, chicken, tofu, fish or beans, and low-fat dairy foods, such as milk and yogurt, while limiting desserts and high calorie fast foods such as wings and French fries.

5. Don’t eat just because it’s there. As tempting as it is, don’t overeat simply because there is food sitting in front of you or within reach. Bingham recommends eating only as much as you need to feel full, then leaving the dining hall before you are tempted to go back for an unnecessary second helping. “Enjoy your meal and then take a walk: explore campus,” she advises.

6. Curb your party animal. Because many college students don’t consider that alcohol is full of calories, it can easily be a factor in first-year weight gain. According to Lamphere, alcohol decreases inhibitions and can also lead to overeating and making poor food choices while under the influence. But if you must drink, there are better choices than others. “The darker the beer, the better, because it’s not as processed,” says Roberts. He also recommends staying away from rum and instead drinking vodka or sake, which are more distilled and contain less sugar.

7. Limit the late-night calories. With all of the late-night cram sessions, it’s easy to succumb to the tempting convenience of ordering in pizza or Chinese food. Roberts urges college students to resist the urge to consume unhealthy late-night meals – instead, snack on a piece of fruit or a salad and other foods high in fiber. High-fiber foods will fill you up with fewer calories and keep you full longer.

Quick college meal plan

Want a better way to eat? Here are some healthy meals that are fast and easy to prepare (even in a dorm room!).

  • Breakfast: Lamphere recommends spreading a piece of whole wheat toast or a waffle with a tablespoon or two of peanut butter and a topping of sliced bananas (which is a lot healthier than a pop-tart or sugary breakfast cereal).
  • Lunch/Snack: Bingham recommends chopping up a few kinds of fresh fruit and mixing in low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese and some nuts for a protein- and fiber-rich meal with staying power.
  • Lunch/Snack: Roberts says that pasta is a good source of carbs to eat as a pre-workout energizing snack or for lunch. Toss with steamed veggies, beans or another lean protein for a balanced meal.
  • Dinner: Bingham recommends a whole wheat pita stuffed with hummus, lettuce and a few pieces of lean turkey for a healthy on-the-go meal.

Bottom line

The Freshman 15 is a possibility but not an inevitable part of going to college. Keep in mind that leaving home and attending a university is a learning experience for everyone. If you do gain weight, remember that there are thousands of students across the country facing the same challenge. Instead of “living with it” and setting yourself up for life-long weight problems, visit the campus nutritionist for healthy weight-loss guidelines and then grab a workout buddy and head to the gym to work up a sweat and scope out the college hotties!

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