Avoiding the “Freshman 15″ pound weight gain

Avoid Gaining Weight
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Recently I was asked to submit suggestions for an article on the subject of weight gain in new college students – specifically, how to avoid putting on the legendary “freshman 15” pounds during the first year away at school. Before responding, I wanted to get an idea of what already has been said on this subject, so as to avoid the repeating the obvious answers – exercise more, make healthy choices at meals, focus on healthy snacks, avoid alcohol consumption, etc, etc. I did a quick google search and read a series of article like this one from WebMD. Articles like this dominated the first three or four pages of search results. While I can’t find fault with the suggestions in here, the advice strikes me as not particularly new or enlightening. I wanted to contribute something a little more thought provoking to the discussion. So, I thought about my long-ago experience as a college freshman as a starting point.

Avoiding the “Freshman 15″ Pound Weight Gain

Here’s what I can remember – aside from the academic challenges of college, the entire structure of my life changed. Gone was the fairly structured routine of high school. Instead, there was relative chaos, and I was on my own to create my a new order. Instead of parents, I was with my peers 24/7 in the dorm, the classroom and the campus. My access to food changed. The vast majority of my meals came from the dining hall (three meals per day Monday through Friday). I had a mini-fridge in my room, with very limited capacity, and I didn’t have access to a kitchen or other meal preparation space. There was a small commissary in the dorm that mainly sold packaged snack (read: junk) food. The dining service at my University was closed on Saturday and Sunday, so weekends were basically a fast food marathon.

Academically, I felt a lot of stress in making the adjustment from high school to college. I was sure I wanted to be a physician, and I knew I needed good grades to get into medical school. So, I studied more than I had in the past, usually at the expense of physical activity. Also, I was two years out from an ACL repair, and I was somewhat tentative whenever I did participate in sports.

All this adds up to some significant changes where nutrition and weight are concerned:

I was now in control of my food choices.

Although I didn’t set the menu in the dining hall, there were multiple entrée choices at each meal, multiple side dishes, a salad bar, and a dessert bar. There was no limitation on how many (or few) times one could go to the various food stations. So, I could eat as much as I wanted with nobody around to check me if I got out of control. This is in contrast to life with my parents, where there was only one meal choice, and a (relatively) limited amount of food was available. For a new Freshman, dining hall life is clearly a set up to consume way too many calories.

Nutritionally poor snacks were more available.

The commissary in the dorm carried mostly junk-food type snacks. I have a feeling this has changed in recent years, given the increase in the prevalence of obesity. But, back in the day, the items on sale were mostly empty calories. Chips, sodas and packaged baked goods lined the shelves. When I lived with my parents, we had some of this crap in the house. But, whatever junk food was available had to last until my mom’s next trip to the grocery store, so there was a clear limit on that stuff.

My activity level dropped.

I was pretty active until my knee injury sidelined me for my junior and senior years of high school. Before the injury I played seasonal sports (touch/flag football in fall, basketball in winter, baseball and golf in spring/summer) with friends and in organized leagues all through grade school, middle school and high school. I was fortunate enough to go to summer camp during many of those years as well, where we played sports all day, every day. College though, was different. Although there were plenty of facilities and resources available for getting exercise, I (along with most other kids I knew), spent more time on academics and socializing than exercising. I played intramural sports in college, but that consisted of one or two games per week at most. There were gym facilities available, but weightlifting and indoor cardio weren’t part of my life yet. One saving grace was the need to get around campus. If it wasn’t for walking to and from class, my level of activity would have been close to zero (as it was early in my medical school career).

The nature of my social activities changed.

My social life change quite a bit from high school to college due to fraternity life on campus. Although I ultimately did not join a fraternity, a good part of my freshman year was spent at fraternity parties and other gatherings, all of which revolved around food and drinking. Although I wasn’t a drinker, I did eat my share of pizzas and other frat house “cuisine” that year. Needless to say, fruit and vegetables did not often find their way onto my plate during that time.

I think these changes are pretty typical for most kids living away from home for the first time. So, given all this, how does one avoid packing on weight due to lack of exercise and loads of nutritionally poor food?

Being fit is a conscious choice. Make the commitment to be fit and healthy, and associate with like- minded people.
Good health and fitness is, for the most part, an active process. It doesn’t come easily, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Research shows that success in fitness and healthy eating is more likely when participating in some form of support group. These groups can be formal, such as Weight Watchers, or virtual, through social media. The ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter among young people makes forming groups with similar goals easy. Social media sites can be a great for organizing lifestyle groups and weight loss competitions. Participants in Facebook weight loss or exercise groups are accountable to other members, and nothing works to keep young people on track like peer pressure. Even twitter can be used to form informal groups through use of hashtags, such as #tweetyourweight -individuals publicly post their weight each week, in order to stay motivated (fear of public humiliation can be another huge motivator). There are other dedicated weight loss/fitness websites available for free, that allow users to log calories, record exercise, blog about feelings, successes and setbacks, and participate in group weight loss forums. Group affiliations “in real life” are also important. Joining intramural teams, workout groups, and other active clubs can help keep you in the fitness game.

Find inspirational role models.

This is another area where social media can be helpful. If the athletes at school aren’t inspirational enough, look to follow good fitness role models online on Twitter or Facebook. Following these individuals as they lead a healthy lifestyle can help keep one motivated and on track.

Don’t get discouraged by early setbacks.

Change in life can be hard, and starting a new life at school is no exception. It will take a while for the new student to adjust to the new situation, and the newfound independence. Mistakes will happen – too much cake at a party, a late night pizza binge, or a mid-afternoon McDonald’s run are all par for the course. But don’t compound isolated dietary disasters by going completely off the rails. If staying on track is becoming difficult, dig in, redouble your efforts, and fall back on your accountability group for support. Everyone messes up sometimes – it’s the bounce back that determines your trajectory.


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