Question of the Week

August 21, 2006

As children and teens get older, they gain more control over their food choices. Those in elementary school begin to make more decisions about what they will and will not eat without a parent always there to tell them what is best. Those in middle school and high school may be spending more time with friends -- and eating even fewer meals at home. And then there's college...

"College offers many temptations. You're on your own and free to eat what you want, when you want it. You can pile on the portions in the dining hall, eat meals of french fries and ice cream, and indulge in sugary and salty snacks to fuel late-night study sessions. In addition, you may not get as much exercise as you did in high school. College isalso a time of change, and the stress of acclimating to school can trigger overeating. People sometimes eat in
response to anxiety, homesickness, sadness, or stress, and all of these can be part of adapting to being away at'school."

So how do students handle the new stresses, the new freedoms, and the "eat what you want, when you want it" buffet being thrown at them all at once? Many gain weight. "Many students complain of weight gain of five to fifteen pounds or more during their first year at Cornell, but no scientific studies have looked at this until recently. Now, ongoing research at Cornell‚s Division of Nutritional Sciences has discovered that Cornell students tend to gain an average of four pounds during their first semester here.

What does this mean? 

Actually, weight gain during freshman year is not inevitable. Some students gain, some lose, and some stay at the same weight.  A weight gain of four pounds in one semester, if it occurs, it is not problematic in itself. However, larger weight gains, or weight that continues to increase over several semesters, would be undesirable for most people."

Even those who make a conscious effort to avoid the extra pounds can sometimes have trouble. "Sunny Dawson ran two miles every other day when she started her freshman year at the University of Southern California. But the lure of the cafeteria near her dorm became too much to resist. 'Everyone I know went crazy...' she said. Dawson soon stopped running and 'started piling up the food in the cafeteria.' By Christmas break, the 5-foot-10 native of Haleiwa, Hawaii, had gained 10 pounds. ... 'I realized I don't have to be a victim of this and started making better choices,' she said. 'I ate a lot of
salads and cut out sodas altogether. By spring break I wasnormal again. I was stoked.' As high school graduates start college this month and next, universities are offering a range of tools to help them avoid Dawson's mistake. ... "

The more students know about the possible causes for the
extra weight, the more they are empowered to make better choices.

"Here are some of the reasons why college students might gain weight, along with strategies to address them.
* Extra eating at the dining halls ...
* Skipping meals ... 
* Snacking while studying ...
* Late nights ...
* Take-out/ order-in food ...
* Vending machines ...
* Lack of exercise ...
* Too many high calorie fluids ...
* Alcohol intake ...
(Please visit the above site directly for the "strategies to address" these reasons.)

Knowing the risks -- and knowing how to combat those hazards with healthier choices -- can help students establish good habits before the bad ones take hold.

"'The patterns and the habits that students get into in the first two to three months of school is what tends to carry them through the rest of their time on campus..."

For those who want some extra support -- or don't quite know where to start -- many campuses are have services available to work with students and help them establish a plan for healthy living.

"...Many schools have nutrition counselors. If yours does not, you can talk to someone on the student health services staff about nutrition and how to make good choices in the dining hall.
...Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption. Not only can excess drinking lead to health problems, but beer and alcohol are high in calories and can cause weight gain.
...Smoking is another culprit. Although cigarettes may suppress your appetite, smoking can make exercise and even normal activity such as walking across campus or climbing stairs more difficult - not to mention causing heart and lung problems and increasing your risk of cancer. Many smokers who quit find they have more energy, so battle the extra pounds by exercising.
...Students in the Tufts study who said they exercised at least 3 days a week were more likely to report better physical health, as well as greater happiness, than those who did not exercise. They were also more likely to report using their time productively."

With all the added pressures of college added to the extra pressure of trying to avoid gaining those extra pounds, some students will need to be careful not to let themselves take things to the opposite extreme.

"Be careful not to slide into eating disorder territory. Stress and the pressure to look good can veer into anorexia and bulimia. Anna Huang, 18, a sophomore at the University of California-San Diego, says she lost 20 pounds her freshman year. 'Everyone else was pretty fit in my dorm, so I started eating a lot less,' says the San Francisco native. 'I would only eat once a day, and then I had a lot of feedback from people saying, "You look a lot better now," which is the worst thing you can say to someone who has an eating disorder. It was horribly unhealthy -- one day I fainted three times in a row.'' Huang is still battling her disorder. 'Stress is huge in college,' says nutrition professor Freedman, adding that people sometimes develop eating disorders as a coping mechanism. But in the end, it becomes an even more dangerous health risk than gaining a few extra pounds."

Questions of the Week:
How can those heading off to college for the first time prepare themselves to establish healthier lifestyle routines? How can this information about how to avoid the "Freshman 15" be useful for those who are not in college? What habits can those in elementary school and high school
establish early that will help them when it comes time to be out on their own? How can teens (and adults) who already have unhealthy habits work toward a healthier lifestyle?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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