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Back to School: Fighting the Freshman Fifteen

Any time you experience major life change, like leaving home for college, getting married, a new job, even experiencing a serious illness, you're at risk for gaining unwanted pounds. Change in your life - even when it's a positive change - means change in your daily routin. Being aware of how your new life affects your eating and exercise habits is critical for maintaining your health and ideal weight.

Melissa is 19 years old and spent her first year at college gaining about 15 pounds. She was pretty miserable when I first met her in June. But, thankfully, we spent the summer working together to lose the weight and she's exactly where she wants to be before returning. At 5 foot 1, she now weighs in at a very reasonable 115 pounds. Melissa is thrilled with her new body. She feels more confident, more energetic, and happier than she did before—and she can finally wear skinny jeans!

But Melissa's weight gain is not unusual. A 2003 Cornell University study found that college freshmen gain an average of 4 pounds in just the first 12 weeks. Some contributing factors include: all-you-can-eat buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; late-night study sessions, which beget late-night snack fests; alcohol—and lots of it; a heavy course load that leaves little time for physical activity; and on and on.

Some factors adding to this weight gain are…

  • Being faced with all-you-can-eat buffets at breakfast, lunch and dinner,
  • Late-night studying – and the snacking and eating late which inevitably goes along with it… fattening take-out dinners of pizza or Chinese food,
  • Alcohol- and lots of it,
  • Pressure to take too many classes so precluding physical activity in the regular routine,
  • Skipping breakfast or lunch time, then overeating between meals and later in the day and into the night.

I understand the struggle: I've been there. My weight gain occurred during my sophomore year—my first year away from home. I ate all my favorite foods any time I wanted (ice cream, pastrami sandwiches, chocolate chip bars, chips). And I went from being very physically active in high school—cheerleading, dancing, and more—to doing virtually nothing in college. I was getting flabby—and fast. I distinctly remember complaining to my grandmother how tired I felt. Her unsympathetic admonition,"You're too young to feel this tired!" shocked me into action and I immediately started changing my ways.

For Melissa and other students going back to school this fall, the temptation to return to unhealthy habits will arise. You're up to the challenge. Try these tips:

• Figure out when to fit in a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Skipping meals can promote overeating.

• Determine when you can be physically active. For instance, will you be able to get your physical activity by walking to and from classes on certain days? Will you need to hit the gym on others?

• Wear a pedometer to ensure you're getting at least the daily 10,000 steps it takes to maintain your weight—and more if you want to lose weight.

• Sign up for an exercise class for credit. During my later college years, I took scuba diving, rescue diving, deep diving, tennis, fencing—basically, anything that allowed me to get credit for staying active and learning a new and interesting sport. This is also a way to meet other people with similar interests.

• Schedule your routine so that you are not hungry at night. If you must study late into the night, drink diet sodas or green tea (my favorite is Jasmine scented), and munch on fruits and veggies.

• Dump friends (subtly, of course) who push you to overindulge.

• Cultivate friendships with healthier folks who share your commitment to staying in shape.

You don't have to undo your hard-earned summer results.College weight gain is not inevitable!