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Avoiding the 'Freshman 15'

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

As first-year students settle in to college life this fall, they'll need to be on guard against a condition popularly known as the "Freshman 15."

The name refers to the extra pounds that some freshmen pack on during their first year on campus. Some studies have found that the average weight gain for first-year students is actually somewhat less than the fabled "15," but many students do add between four and eight pounds between their arrival on campus and the end of their first year.

While the average amount may not be significant, it is a concern for a 17- or 18-year-old to gain any weight at all, and may represent the start of a chronic weight problem. The Freshman 15 may also be the result in part of unhealthy eating habits that could continue into adult life.

Marilyn Sparling, a dietitian-clinician at Duke University Medical Center, says that several factors contribute to the Freshman 15. These include making the adjustment to a new environment, dealing with more stress and partaking in late-night socializing. Sparling adds that meal plans at many campus cafeterias can be a tough temptation for students.

"I think portion control is a big contributing factor," she explains. "You go in, you take it off your meal card, you have 10 different food stations you can go between, and there's no limit. You just eat much more than you're typically used to eating, because it's there. It's like a buffet."

She recommends passing by the dormitory vending machines and keeping nutritious snacks in the dorm fridge -- fruits and raw veggies with low-calorie salad dressing, low-fat cheese and high-fiber crackers. Fruits like apples also keep well. Instead of candy bars, Sparling suggests lower-calorie energy bars and granola bars.

"These are somewhat more nutrient-dense, not just calorie-dense," she adds.

Students also should not neglect exercise. Many students lower their level of physical activity when they become busy with classes and extracurricular events.

"Students need to figure out how they can get more activity, whether it's going to the gym or just going walking with a friend," says Sparling. "When you're stressed out over an exam or a paper, get up from the desk and get out and walk for 30 minutes.

"Even though you have food around you when you're growing up at home, it's different at college," she says. "All of a sudden, you have total control over your food intake. This is a good time to develop healthy habits that you can carry with you though life."

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