Fighting the Freshman Fifteen - A College Woman's guide to Getting Real About Food and Keeping the Pounds Off

LBS: The Unwanted Undergrad Degree Heard of "The Freshman 15"? That's how many pounds students often gain their first year at college. Here's a cram course in why and what to do.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Debra Nussbaum - September 1, 2002

Along with required courses such as Calculus I, History of Western Civilization, or Conversational Spanish, many new college students this fall will be engrossed in these electives: Late-Night Pizza Consumption, Drinking 101, AII-Day Sleeping, and that general-studies favorite, Overindulgence."

Once out of the clutches of their parents, college students find a heady liberation ih having no one around to say "Don't eat that fifth brownie!" or "Where are you going with that keg?"

But for young women especially, that taste of freedom can be a calorie trap. It can result in "the Freshman 15," a term that may sound like a musical group or a football team but actually refers to a phenomenon noted by dietitians, doctors and horrified parents after that first collegiate term of unsupervised eating and drinking: Often, freshman women -and sometimes men -gain 15 pounds.

Higher education, it seems, can be broadening in ways students never imagined. Such a trend is this weight gain that some colleges offer tips on their Web sites on how to avoid it. (Just typing in the term on your browser will turn up thousands of references.)

Robyn Flipse could almost set her calendar by the calls she gets in late November for December appointments.

"There has been a phenomenon every fall when I get these phone calls from moms," said Flipse, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in private practice in Ocean, N.J. "They want an appointment for Christmas break. The weight gain was so dramatic." When Flipse went to college in the early '70s, there was no late-night food delivery, and there were no toasters, microwaves or refrigerators in the dorm rooms. Fast-food places were off campus. The dorm cafeteria usually closed in the early evening. To some, being vegetarian was hip.

As we all know, much has changed. Life on campus now is a 24-hour-a-day smorgasbord of pizza, hoagies and burgers accompanied by high-calorie beverages from colas to pina coladas. Kids even eat during class. Or they may be sipping, say, a "Double Gulp" soda from 7-Eleven - 64 ounces, containing nearly 700 calories. Combine the easy availability of such fare with lack of sleep, a little boredom, perhaps some homesickness, and a lot of socializing, and you have a recipe for poor eating.

"If anyone has a whim, a mood or PMS, everybody eats," Flipse says, "and there are endless quantities of beer kegs and parties."

Kiersten Creran knows all about the fight with the Freshman 15 -or, in her case, the Recurring 20. At 5-foot-9, a tight and fit college swimmer, the Haddonfield 20-year-old, now in her senior year at Brown University, has seen her weight increase from 150 at the end of each summer to 170 during the school year.

After her first few months at school, Creran says, she was "becoming this dense ball. I was the size of a small man. I was this solid walking box. I was shocked I gained weight because I was working out so much."

She routinely swims 20 hours a week, runs, and builds her strength in the weight room. The problem lies in what happens after the exercise.

"When you come from practice, you're tired and hungry. You eat pasta, and it goes right to your hips. You'd be just starving, and you'd know you should have an egg-white omelet; but you want the plate of Tater Tots. Most of it is you drink until 2 a.m., and then you order a pizza or get food from anywhere that's open late."

Creran has worked off the extra pounds every summer; and this year, her last at Brown, she plans to attack healthy eating more aggressively. She won't have a meal plan, and she'll buy her own food. Facing graduation and adult life, she can still say, "You take better care of yourself when your parents are around."

Her friend and fellow swimmer Alyson Flynn, also 20, can relate. Flynn lifeguards with Creran at Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island, and lives in Cinnaminson. At Rowan, she pledged a sorority and found that, in the sorority house as in the dorm, where she lived, food was always on the agenda. At 2 a.m., she could always find a hoagie or soup or cookies, and, of course, there's always someone up and ready to share. At one point, Flynn gained 20 pounds in 10 weeks. She's still taking it off.

"For me, " she says, "75 percent of it was the eating late at night. "

Some young women avoid the perils of the Freshman 15 only to get ambushed when they return for their sophomore year. Liane Serinsky, 20, of Wynnewood, who's starting her junior year at George Washington University this fall, gained no weight freshman year, even though someone in the dorm always had a bag of chips or a box of Pop-Tarts.

She was on GW's crew team as a freshman; but she crewed again her sophomore year, when she did gain. Her biggest change last year was having a room with a kitchen and an eat;ing card good at Chinese food stands, pasta bars and bagel stores.

"I didn't know when enough was enough," she says. And then there was starbucks. "I would have one white-chocolate mocha a day. That's a lot of calories. "

Over the summer, Serinsky spent time running to work off the weight. "When I came home, I said, 'I'm not going through the summer without pants that fit me. ' " She's now back to her normal size.

Robyn Flipse, the mother of two boys who avoided the Freshman 15, sees all this college weight gain as preventable.

Still taut and trim at 50, Flipse does a lot of writing and public speaking on weighty issues. She understands the concept of gaining during certain cycles in life; she also understands the art of taking weight off.

In The Wedding Dress Diet, a book that came out in 2000, Flipse and coauthor Jacqueline Shannon, a health writer, advise brides on getting ready for the wedding day, setting up a healthy low-calorie kitchen, and dining during the honeymoon.

Flipse's latest book is aimed at a slightly younger audience. Just out last month, the book is titled Fighting the Freshman 15- A College Woman's Guide to Getting Real About Food and Keeping the Pounds Off (Three Rivers Press). It isn't about thin; it's about eating in a healthy way, thinking about what you consume, and not overdoing fatty foods, sugar and liquor.

The book reads like a light and lively course text with assignments, tips, charts, quotes and recipes. Flipse also presents more cold, hard reality than does MTV: A beer is the caloric equivalent of two slices of bread. Drinking a six- pack is the same as eating almost a whole loaf. And that yummy blender drink probably carries 300 calories, so each one is like a big scoop of ice cream.

Two coauthors add their own experience to the book. California sisters Marisa and Marchelle Bradanini, now 23 and 21, figured out how to fight the 15 after Marisa gained and lost it, and Marchelle avoided it altogether by learning from her big sister's mistakes.

Both attended the University of California at San Diego. When, as a high school student, Marchelle saw Marisa gain 15 pounds in her first few months at UCsD, Marchelle began to rethink her own future. "I was, like, 'I don't want to go to college.'

She changed her mind, but she worked to avoid the dietary pitfalls. She describes college as a Temptation Island of food. She managed to navigate it by watching portions, eschewing fast food and sweets, and sticking with an exercise program. She also took the kind of advice offered in the book to which she and her sister contributed: She got real about the truism that calories minus activity will equal weight gain -and that those calories can come from a creamy coffee drink or a cute pink cocktail with an umbrella.

Marchelle managed to keep the weight on her 5-foot-5 frame to only 120 pounds. But she witnessed those around her growing in girth.

"A lot of girls end up drinking a lot more," she says. "Mixed drinks are fruity and loaded with sugar. You can't fall into the social eating, and you can't look at everyone else."

She says she had one "metabolically gifted roommate" who could eat chocolate-chip cookies in the middle of the night and not budge the scale. But her other two roommates gained the pounds and would be "complaining while eating the cookie bar.

" Like Flipse, Connecticut dietitian Lisa Bunce gets the phone calls about the Freshman 15 and sees the same pattern of overindulgence with the first draught of freedom. And just because students may be able to work off the weight quicker than can a 40-year-old body, she says, "doesn't mean they don't have to take a step back and focus."

However, Bunce also points out the good news here for young collegians: "They have the benefit of the higher metabolic rate on their side. "

It's one of nature's gifts: Freshman and sophomores who do put on weight have the ability to lose it.

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