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

Fitness and the right food help avoid the Freshman 15

Star Tribune

By Jill Burcum - September 24, 2002

Stephanie Kudrle and Megan Rowekamp weren't jittery about the usual things when they entered the University of Minnesota this fall.

Moving away from their Bloomington homes and taking college No problem. Ditto for leaving old friends and making new ones.

What did unnerve the 18-year-olds was the possibility of gaining a lot of weight during their first year of school. Both had heard stories about once-slim students who'd returned home hefty the following summer. They were horrified when Rowekamp's mother confirmed that this happened to women she knew in school.

There's little medical evidence that new college students pack on pounds. But so many return home plumper that the phenomenon has its own pop culture nickname --"the Freshman 15," the number of pounds typically gained.

The problem is so common that some college Web sites warn incoming students about it, and with good reason. The extra weight not only can affect a student's appearance, but can also set the stage for weight- related health problems throughout life.

But fortunately, the Freshman 15 isn't a mandatory course of college life. It can be avoided with common sense and planning --both by students and parents.

"There's a lot you can do to prevent this," said Robyn Flipse, a New Jersey-based dietitian and author of "Fighting the Freshman 15" (Three Rivers Press, $9.95).

In late September and early October, Flipse typically starts fielding panicked calls from parents. They can be shocked by the weight gain the first time they see their child on a parents' weekend or when the child visits home.

Avoiding pitfalls

The ideal time to start talking about responsible eating and staying fit is before kids leave for school, said Flipse. The potential waistline pitfalls include:

  • All-you-can-eat cafeteria dining
  • Cheap and plentiful pizza
  • Nearby fast-food restaurants
  • Snacking during late-night cramming sessions
  • Reduced physical activity
  • Late-night trips to vending machines
  • Access to alcohol

Add the newfound freedom that college brings and it's hard not to overindulge, Flipse said. "Pretty soon, you're taking in more calories than you can possibly burn off."

This may sound obvious, Flipse said, but it's often not to young adults. In her clinical practice, she has met students who do not understand why they've gained weight at school -- even though they keep ready-to-bake tubes of cookie dough in dorm refrigerators for snacking.

"You'd be surprised what students will eat," she said. The antidote is straightforward, experts say: Avoid college lifestyle pitfalls, make good food choices and get regular exercise.

"I think just raising awareness of this really does help," said Marla Reicks, an associate professor of nutrition in the University of Minnesota's department of food and science.

Students' tales

Kudrle and Rowekamp would agree. After hearing about the Freshman 15 from parents and others, they put together a plan to work out together several times a week at the university's recreation center. They also eat together in the dorm cafeteria, each helping the other to make good food choices and in particular, resist the cheese-drenched French fries that both love.

Kudrle and Rowekamp illustrate the opportunity that college provides to establish healthful eating and exercise habits that can last a lifetime, Flipse said.

Colleges typically have inexpensive fitness centers, she said. Many also offer intramural basketball, soccer and other sports.

Students eager to stay in shape are likelier to take advantage of these opportunities, Flipse said.

That's how Missy Stoll, a sophomore in chemistry at the university, has stayed slim. Stoll works out several times a week, but also signed up for intramural hockey to help stay fit.

"It's fun and it's a way to keep the weight off," Stoll said.

Such students are also likelier to make better choices at restaurants and dorm cafeterias, Flipse said. Both typically offer salads and other alternatives to high-fat and high-calorie entrees.

Flipse said students also should consider the dorm cafeteria a source of healthful snacks.

Most offer food plans that allow students unlimited food. While that can lead to weight problems, students can also use this to their advantage, she said.

Before leaving the cafeteria, students can grab an extra container of yogurt, some fresh fruit or veggies to take back to the room, Flipse said. When the urge to snack strikes, a healthy option is available.

Flipse said the key to looking and feeling good is taking health and fitness as seriously as any college course. Parents can reinforce these ideas and avoid being part of the problem, she added.

"You wouldn't believe what's in 'CARE' packages sent from home sometimes," Flipse said.

Students who struggle with weight can get help from health care providers at student medical clinics, Flipse said. Or parents can make a medical appointment with a physician or dietitian for when their child is home on break.

Flipse suggested that parents approach the topic gently. Young adults sensitive about their appearance and probably are aware they've put on weight. Sometimes just discussing exercise and healthy eating is enough.

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