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Beat the 'freshman 15'

Globe and Mail Update

University will broaden your mind, but it might also broaden your waistline if you're not careful. And that's especially true for first-year students.

It seems the long-rumoured "freshman 15" — in which students gain 15 pounds during their first year — is indeed a reality. Researchers from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., recently revealed that university freshmen gain about a third of a pound each week — an average of 4.2 pounds during the first three months at school.

That may not sound like much, but it's roughly 11 times the weight gain expected for an 18 year-old.

It's a surprising result, considering that our awareness of nutrition is at an all-time high. A recent survey of Canadian high school students revealed that almost eight out of 10 teenagers rate nutrition as important when deciding what to eat. And more than half the students surveyed said they'd eat in the school cafeteria more often if it offered a greater variety of healthy foods.

Healthy meal options are certainly available on campuses — vegetable packed stir-fries, pita sandwiches, salad bars and soy burgers can be found on many menus.

So where are college students going wrong?

The first year at university means freedom — to eat what you want, when you want and, often, as much as you want. As well, as the course load increases, exercise seems to be the first casualty.

It's easy to dismiss the calories in that extra cookie you eat while studying or the two pints of beer you drink at pub night. How could a cookie (or two) do harm? Yet those extra calories add up fast. It's the cumulative effect of a little extra here and a little extra there that shows up around the middle.

If you scarf back an additional 500 calories each day — a bag of chips and a chocolate bar — you'll gain one pound a week. The Cornell students consumed only 174 calories extra a day to gain their four pounds by December exam time. That's fewer calories than one small chocolate bar.

The best way to combat the freshman 15 is to prevent it altogether. Here are some tips:

  • Stick to a regular eating schedule. Eat breakfast, lunch, dinner and a midday snack to prevent hunger and overeating. Examine your class schedule and determine when and where you'll fit in meals.
  • If meals are served in a dining hall, resist the all-you-can eat mentality. Cruise the line to scope out healthy options first. If you're not sure what's in the mystery dish, stick with broiled meat, chicken or fish.
  • Moderate your portions of starchy sides. If you choose pasta, skip the bread. Instead of potatoes or noodles, ask for a double serving of vegetables or salad.
  • Don't add dessert to your tray on your first trip through the line. Finish your meal first — you'll be more likely to give sweets a pass.
  • Keep your intake of sugary fruit juice to once per day and save pop for a weekly treat. Best bets for beverages: water, low-fat milk or soy beverages.
  • Avoid late-night eating. If you must snack while studying, keep healthy choices within reach, such as fruit and veggie bars, fresh fruit, almonds, low-fat granola bars, whole-grain crackers and mini cans of tuna.
  • Never snack out of the box or bag — measure one serving of snack food and put it on a plate. It's too easy to lose track of how much you're munching when you're stressed out about exams.
  • Instead of snacking on cookies or potato chips, sip while you study. Try a mug of herbal or flavoured black tea to fill the gap — you'll boost your fluid intake without adding calories.
  • Consider getting a small fridge so you can stock up on cold snacks like yogurt, baby carrots, hummus and part-skim cheese strings.
  • Practice party control. Eat a healthy meal before you go so you don't arrive famished. Have a plan to limit your alcohol: Just because the label says "light" or "low carb" doesn't mean beer is calorie free.
  • Make time for exercise. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. Sneak in a power walk between, or after, classes. Or check out what the campus gym has to offer.

    With a little planning, organization and nutrition know-how, you'll gain knowledge at university, not pounds.

    Leslie Beck is a Toronto-based dietitian and appears on CTV'sCanada AM every Wednesday.

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