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Freshman 15 drops some pounds

USA Today, October 23, 2006

BOSTON - The Freshman 15, a term coined to describe the extra pounds that many college students pack on in their first year away from home, has lost some weight.

New research out Sunday shows that the newcomers on campus only gain a little more than half that amount. Call it the Freshman 8.

Students start putting on pounds their first semester and continue to do so through their sophomore year, say the studies released here at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society, an organization of weight-loss professionals. The presentation was dubbed Generation XL.

Although the freshman-year weight gain is less than thought, nutritionists are not applauding. They still fear these young adults are laying the groundwork for heavy adulthood by succumbing to the temptation of unlimited and unsupervised food choices.

"The first year of college is a vulnerable time for students," says lead researcher Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School in Providence. "While most are not gaining the Freshman 15, many are gaining weight and aren't taking it off."

In the most comprehensive analysis to date, researchers at Brown examined weight data on 907 students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and 382 at Brown. Findings:

  • Freshman-year gain at Purdue: 7.8 pounds for men and women, mostly in the first semester.
  • December/January winter-break gain: men, 1.4 pounds; women stayed the same.
  • Gain by end of sophomore year: men, 9.5 pounds; women, 9.2.
  • Freshman-year gain at Brown: men, 5.6 pounds; women, 3.6, again mostly the first semester.

But students can feel the gain without looking at studies.

Allie Lewin, 18, a freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, hasn't stepped on the scales recently, but she's afraid that she has gained about 5 pounds during her first two months at college.

Eunice Eun, 18, a sophomore at Brown University in Providence, packed on 15 pounds the first semester of her freshman year. "It was really startling for my parents when I went back home for Thanksgiving break," she recalls.

She blames "the novelty of having the freedom to eat whatever and whenever I wanted."

Nutritionists say that freedom is the undoing of many freshman waistlines.

"Students need to be vigilant," says Lloyd-Richardson. She believes many factors contribute to the problem, including increased alcohol consumption, eating while socializing, decreased physical activity and exposure to high-calorie, high-fat foods everywhere.

In fact, there is a restaurant near Purdue that advertises "burritos as big as your head," and there are frequently long lines of students waiting to get in late at night after they've been drinking, she says.

Testing, and tasting, freedom

At many dining halls, students have carte blanche on how much they can eat. "They could conceivably eat a trough of food at any given meal," notes Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"Nobody at home is cooking like a dining hall. They don't have five different entrees and five different desserts at home," she says. "And we know that the more variety people are offered, the more they eat."

Many college cafeterias offer stir-fry entrees, sushi bars, deli counters, sandwich-wrap stations and ethnic foods. They serve hamburgers, fries and pizza. Some have buffets of cereal, frozen yogurt, ice cream and dessert. Then there's the limitless soda and other drinks.

Students want to test all their newfound freedom to the limit, Bonci says. Nobody is stopping them from eating brownies, ice cream and french fries for dinner.

Then there's all that munching when they drink alcoholic beverages, she says. "I tell students if they go out and drink, chances are they are not going to eat a salad. The closest thing they are going to get to a vegetable is the celery stick in the Bloody Mary."

Many are often blindsided by the weight gain. They might overeat for a couple of months before they notice it, and then all of a sudden their pants aren't fitting anymore, and they know they have to stop, Bonci says. "They say, 'How unfair is this? How can this have happened to me?' "

Ann Litt, a registered dietitian in Bethesda, Md., starts getting calls around Thanksgiving from overweight college students. Most blame the food service, but that's only part of the problem, she says.

Students often have hectic, irregular schedules, and they are grazing instead of sitting for regular meals, she says.

"It's dish-and-dash," Litt says. "They walk into the cafeteria and grab some cereal or a bag of something and eat it as they're walking to class."

Some have open boxes of cereal, chips, cookies and pretzels on their desks and frequently reach in for another handful of food while they're studying. Before they know it, they've consumed 600 to 800 calories, says Litt, who visited the cafeterias of 70 colleges for the second edition of her book, The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus.

This confluence of foods comes at a time of great change, she notes. "A lot of kids eat because they are sad, lonely, bored. Food is a friend. It's comforting."

Lewin says she has been trying hard not to gain. At the dining hall, she limits herself to salads with light dressing and turkey sandwiches with no mayo. But she gets really hungry late at night when she's studying and noshes on granola bars and chocolate.

It's hard not to when everybody around her is scarfing down food. "There are people who have frozen yogurt at every meal every day. The people across the hall order pizza at 12 every night. Everybody has snacks in their rooms," Lewin says. "At night between 10 and 3 in the morning, everyone is walking around eating."

Eun also indulged in late-night snacking. "I lived steps away from a late-night eatery, and my friends would go there and get pizza."

The smorgasbord of choices was overwhelming. "I'm Korean, and we eat a lot of rice, vegetables and fish," she says. "I wasn't used to this buffet-style American food available to me at any time I wanted."

It took Eun eight months to lose the weight. She went back to eating more vegetables and fish and exercised religiously. She now weighs 128 pounds at 5-foot-6 and runs almost daily.

Making time for exercise

For many freshmen, old exercise habits fall by the wayside. Lewin played soccer year round in high school and now is on an intramural team that practices only once a week. It's hard to get motivated to go to the gym, which is outdated and hot, she says.

At 5-foot-1, she believes she now weighs about 115 pounds, up from 110. But she's determined to nip the increase in the bud. "I'm going to have to force myself to go to the gym every other day and not snack between meals."

Ryan Storer, 22, a senior at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, can top both Lewin and Eun. He packed on 20 pounds his freshman year, climbing to 195 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame.

He blames it on "being away from home, the cafeteria food and not working out." He was a wrestler in high school, and when he got to college he wasn't in any structured athletic program. He got sick with mononucleosis and lost the extra weight. He now weighs 175.

One of the most valuable things college students can do is to establish a meal schedule right along with their class schedule each semester, says registered dietitian Robyn Flipse, author of Fighting the Freshman Fifteen.

"It doesn't matter if the meal times don't conform to the traditional times. What matters is that there are three opportunities built into each day to sit down and eat a meal," she says.

Bonci offers students these ideas for controlling weight at college:

  • Eat breakfast daily.
  • Focus on eating a little bit less: Put four food items on your plate instead of five; drink one glass of beverage instead of two.
  • When it comes to late-night snacking, sit down with a portion. Put it in a bowl or on a plate and don't eat from the bag.
  • Set limits when you're eating with friends. "You can have one slice and not the whole pizza. Don't try to keep up with everybody else who is eating."
  • Watch out for alcohol's appetite-enhancing effects. "Eat something before you go out to a frat party or a bar so you're not as tempted to stuff your face."