Freshman 15

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(HOST) Many of us will welcome home college students this week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Some of them will undoubtedly weigh more than when they left a few months ago as they’ve piled on the dreaded Freshman 15 – the weight-gain many college students experience in their first semester. But commentator Rachel Johnson says that our kids’ experiences can teach us a thing or two as well.

(JOHNSON) I remember the Freshman 15 all too well from my own student days. During my first week as a student at Penn State, I realized that I could eat as many glazed doughnuts as I wanted, and nobody, including my mother, could tell me “no.” The independence was liberating, but the consequence of my poor choices was not.

So I wasn’t surprised when the subject of campus weight-gain came up last August with my son Ben and his girlfriend, Heidi, who was setting off to Montana for college. She’s a runner with healthy food habits. She told me, “I’m resigned to it. I think putting on weight my first semester is inevitable.”

She may be right. One study showed that, during the first two years of college, 70 percent of students gained an average of nine pounds. Although the “15” may be an exaggeration, most new students do gain weight.

What’s going on in the utopian world of the ivory towers?

Some of the blame lies in unlimited food offerings in college dining halls. In order to compete for the best and the brightest, most universities provide all-you-can-eat buffets with serve-yourself soda fountains and make-your-own sundae bars.

All-you-can-eat food results in the “buffet syndrome”: the greater the variety of food we are presented with, the less likely we are to tire of the taste and curb our eating. In one study, people ate 15 percent more when offered three shapes of pasta compared to when they had only one.

Frequent late-night snacking is another cause of weight gain in college freshmen – midnight pizza and subs are the traditional downfall. Alcohol also likely plays a role. When I asked my college-age sons about student weight issues, they quickly agreed on the culprit: beer.

There is hope for avoiding the seemingly inevitable weight gain. In one study researchers used the fact that people who weigh themselves regularly are often more successful at losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight. A group of freshman students weighed themselves every morning and entered the results on a website. The students received immediate feedback in the form of a weight-trend graph, giving them a sense of whether they were gaining or losing. Amazingly, the students who weighed themselves regularly had zero weight gain, while the control group with no intervention gained four to seven pounds.

Weight gain happens to most of us at some time in our lives. But it’s important to remember that we have control over whether those pounds stick. Party buffets, pot-luck gatherings and alcoholic cheer at the holidays can tempt us to pile our plates high – and calories even higher. Keep in mind that all of these holiday hazards can create pitfalls. Heidi has been smart all semester about avoiding the extras in the dining hall and enjoying lots of outdoor activity. We’re counting the days until she comes home, and we can’t wait to see her!

I’m Rachel Johnson of Colchester.

Nutritionist Rachel Johnson is Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM and an advisor to Eating Well magazine.

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