Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
Thousands of college freshmen are swarming campuses this month, facing a host of adjustments to new schools, schedules and academic challenges. But when the first visit home rolls around, family members might notice that along with new knowledge and habits kids might also have picked up a few pounds.
The good news is that the few published studies on the subject show that average weight gains during that first year away from home aren't typically the 'freshman fifteen', but more in the range of 4 to 9 pounds.
For many students, paying attention to diet and nutrition in the first year of college often takes a back seat to bigger issues as kids get established. But erratic eating habits, all-night study sessions, all-you-can-eat dining hall buffets and extracurricular partying, coupled with decreased activity, can wreak havoc on the waistline.
Here are a few gentle reminders parents can give kids as they send them off on their own for the first time:
- Stay active. Regular exercise is important not just for weight management, but it's the best stress-reducer around. Ride a bike to campus, make use of on-campus gyms and exercise classes, or use study breaks to get in a few minutes of activity.
- Carry portable snacks. Whole fruits, protein bars, sticks of string cheese and cartons of yogurt are easy to carry and can be lifesavers when kids get hungry and when fast food or vending machines are calling to them.
- Don't skip meals. Kids who skip won't have the mental energy to perform well in class. And, getting overly hungry often leads to overeating later on.
- Pack and prepare meals when possible. Preparing your own food means that you have more control over what you're eating. For kids who live in dorms, encourage them to establish regular eating habits and patterns, and to seek out healthy foods to avoid being tempted by the huge array of foods on display.
- Watch beverage calories. Alcoholic beverages are high in calories, but kids can guzzle a lot of calories from non-alcoholic sodas and fruit drinks, too. Encourage them to get into the water-drinking habit.
- Beware of stress eating. The stresses of adjusting to life on their own can lead some kids to turn to food for comfort. When kids feel like they're eating out of stress rather than hunger, suggest they call a family member or friend, or take a walk instead.
- This last tip is for parents. Watch those care packages and over-indulgence when the kids come home on weekends and during the holidays. One study has reported that kids could put on as much as two pounds over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.