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10 Tips for Avoiding the “Freshman 15”

By Doris Nicolas-Mir, MPH, RDN, LDN, CDE

It’s that time of year where many high school grads are preparing to head off to college. This can be an exciting and sometimes nerve-racking transition for both parents and kids. The focus is usually on what electronics need to be purchased as well as furnishing and decor for dorm rooms. But, with all the changes it is easy to forget about healthy lifestyle habits.

The term “freshman 15” refers to the average weight gain that college freshmen gain during their first year. It’s important to remember that this is an average – some students do not gain any and some may gain more. Keeping this in mind college can be a great time to develop healthy habits. Here are 10 tips to help you get started.

1. Start the day off right

You probably have heard it time and time again, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Even if you do not get to the dining hall in the morning you want to make sure to eat breakfast. Eating breakfast can help prevent overeating later in the day and can help you stay focused and alert in the those early 10:00am classes. Whether you grab something before you head out or go to the dining hall, make sure to get a combination of carbohydrates (whole grains, fruit, or dairy), protein and healthy fats. Here are some suggestions:

  • yogurt with fruit or granola
  • oatmeal
  • high fiber cereal with milk
  • breakfast sandwich/burrito with egg and cheese
  • breakfast/energy bar (with less than 10g of sugar)
  • whole grain bread with nut butter

2. Plan for snacks

After starting the day off with a good breakfast you don’t want to avoid going too long without eating between meals. There is no set rule as to how many snacks you may need. Listen to your body and hunger cues and plug one in as you need it. Although there may be healthy options at the vending machines you can save time and money by carrying your own snacks. Here are some easy snacks that travel well in a backpack:

  • nuts and nut blends (low sodium or no salt added)
  • roasted chickpeas or edamame
  • popcorn
  • fresh fruit or fruit cups packed in 100% juice or water
  • granola bars (with less than 10g sugar)

3. Navigate the dining hall

With the newly found freedoms that comes with being in college comes the unlimited food options at the on-campus dining facilities. Most students have an unlimited dining plan that includes tempting foods such as pizza, burgers, French fries, tacos, and ice cream. Just remember it’s ok to have pizza but try having a salad first. Make sure to take advantage of having access to fresh fruits and vegetables and include these in each of your meals. Try using the balanced plate method (½ of the plate non-starchy vegetables, ¼ of the plate lean proteins, ¼ starchy vegetables or grains) to plan your meals.

4. Stay hydrated

Anytime you have the opportunity to, drink water. A must have is a reusable water bottle that you can carry with you and refill around campus. Aim to get at least 64 ounces of water a day, and if you are active you may need more. If you have a hard time getting your water in try adding a piece of fruit such as strawberries or lemon slices to add some flavor without the calories. By drinking water, you can avoid the hidden sugars in sodas, lemonades, and teas.

5. Monitor alcohol and caffeine

Late night partying with multiple alcoholic drinks or late-night studying with several caffeinated or energy drinks can have you taking in an extra 700 calories easily. A can of regular beer has about 150 calories while a mixed drink can have over 200 calories. If you are going to drink alcohol try and keep it to 1-2 drinks per day. With coffee, 1-2 cups per day is fine, black is best, but if you need to add cream and sugar do so in moderation. And avoid lattes and frozen coffee drinks which may have well over 300 calories per drink.

6. Make time to stay active

Many freshmen were active in one or more high school sports but don’t continue this activity when they get to college. There are endless opportunities to stay active in college. One of the best ones is walking. Most college campuses have great walking paths, so consider walking to class instead of taking the bus. You also have the on-campus fitness center. There is no membership cost, it’s usually open extended hours, and they have state of the art fitness machines. You could also try taking a group fitness class. You can join a recreation sports team or running/hiking club. Whichever activity you choose, take a friend, it will make it fun and hold you accountable.

7. Get enough sleep

Most college students need somewhere between 6-8 hours of sleep per night. Sticking to a good sleep routine can help prevent overeating which may lead to weight gain. Even though your class schedule can vary day to day try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time. If you have trouble going to sleep avoid caffeine late in the day, exercising too late and screen time at least an hour before bed.

8. Manage stress

As mentioned earlier, all the changes along with challenging classes and social activities may lead to an increase in stress. When stress is high the body may release a hormone called cortisol that can increase your appetite and make the body store fat. Stress can lead to an erratic meal schedule and craving for comfort foods. A great way to deal with stress is with exercise. You can try a yoga class or guided meditation both are available online. If the stress level gets too high you can schedule an appointment with a counselor, one may be available at the student health center.

9. Take a health course

Even if you are not in a health-related major most colleges offer introductory nutrition, health, or exercise physiology classes for non-majors. You can get a double benefit of earning an elective credit and learning lifelong skills that will benefit you in the future.

10. Visit the student health center

Take advantage of everything the student health center has to offer. We may think of a clinic as somewhere we go for acute issues such as a bad cold but there are other programs and activities that can help you stick with your healthy habits. Some student health centers have fitness or step challenges to help you stay active. They may also have dietitians on site to help support your nutrition and weight goals. And the best part is you may even get some cool swag for participating.

If you are a new graduate or current high school student set up an appointment with an Avance Care dietitian by calling specialty services at (919) 237-1337, option 4. It’s never too soon start building healthy lifestyle habits!

Doris is a registered dietitian at the Clayton and Knightdale Avance Care locations. In her free time, she enjoys spending time exploring North Carolina with her husband and 3 kids. Doris and her family have a tradition of visiting at least one major league baseball park each year. Camden Yards in Baltimore is their next stop.

Categories: Education,  Nutrition
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