Health Options
Alan Titchenal
& Joannie Dobbs

Guard against
‘Freshman 15’

For many high school seniors heading off to college, the insidious "Freshman 15" will start in about three months. This initial rapid weight gain can adversely affect self-image, overall health, even grade point average. For some, attempts to avoid the "Freshman 15" will lead to a lifelong eating disorder with much more serious consequences than weight gain.

Question: What does "Freshman 15" refer to?

Answer: This term is used to describe the weight gain that many students experience during their first year at college. Typically these 15 pounds are mostly body fat, not lean muscle.

Q: What causes the gain?

A: Dorm food often is blamed, but this is an oversimplification that hides more important factors that students can control if they understand them. More likely reasons include: 1) Being exposed to a new food environment; 2) making poor choices even when good options are available; 3) change in lifestyle; and 4) reduced physical activity.

Q: How does a new food environment affect weight?

A: A new array of foods can offer options that may be fine in moderation, but when they are available in relatively unlimited amounts, the diet can become too high in calories. Also, eating with peers can present new pressures that influence food choices.

Q: What are the most frequent poor food choices?

A: These include choosing only tasty favorites such as pizza or burgers, being a picky eater and therefore avoiding all foods that don't taste like Mom's, and changing to extreme, poorly designed diets. For example, switching to a poorly designed vegetarian diet often results in "salad and pasta" dining that leads to serious nutrient deficiencies.

Diets too low in protein tend to promote consumption of excess carbohydrate or fat and this results in higher calorie intake and fat gain. Developing a strong sweet tooth can indicate inadequate protein in the diet.

Such an imbalanced diet will gradually lead to deficiencies in nutrients such as protein, iron and calcium. This makes mental focus difficult and grades suffer.

Q: What other lifestyle changes affect body weight?

A: Students are notorious for skipping breakfast. This has been shown to cause overeating later in the day.

Those who were active in sports in high school may find their physical activity greatly reduced at college. If they haven't decreased their caloric intake to match their activity, they are likely to gain weight rapidly. This highlights the value of always including a P.E. class.

Also, the college lifestyle often leads to less than adequate sleep. This behavior, even without late-night munching, seems to be related to weight gain.

Peer pressure to drink alcohol can be strong, over and above the legal issues. Many don't realize how easily the empty calories in alcohol contribute to fat gain.

This summer is time to focus on balanced eating. Give your fledgling freshman a copy of this article.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S. and Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S. are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, UH-Manoa. Dr. Dobbs also works with the University Health Services and prepares the nutritional analyses marked with an asterisk in this section.

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