Many college freshman worry about gaining the dreaded “freshman 15”. What they fear, in fact is that they will somehow gain 15 pounds during their freshman year at college, unintentionally.

When I counsel college students, I often encourage them to overcome the fear of weight gain and replace it with a sense of self assurance. When you understand your body does not intend to trick you or get out of your ideal body weight range, it can become easier to trust your body.

Unfortunately, an individual’s relationship with food can be a very complicated one. How many people do you see day to day who seem unhappy with their body? Or, perhaps it is the seemingly harmless comments like “I can’t eat that,” “I am so fat,” “That food is so bad for me,” or “I wish I could eat that.” None of these comments give respect to one’s body and in a sense, put a sort of distrust in one’s own ability to be healthy.

Combine that with the situation of a young man or woman embarking on the college path, leaving home (perhaps for the first time) and being confronted with countless choices and opportunities. Take it to the cafeteria or campus gym and you can often see anxiety escalade. Comparisons to other students (be it eating styles, study styles, workout routines, or the like) or even a desire to be so far different from usual can often lead individuals to an unknown place—where losing touch with one’s body signals and true self becomes the norm. And, it can be tough…to keep in touch with your true healthy self, especially if you are not sure who that true self really is or who it wants to be.

So, let us bring it back to the point of contention—how to avoid the freshman 15. Assuming that a college freshman is at a healthy weight (or even overweight) from the start, I can offer a few suggestions to help avoid unnecessary weight gain. And, even though the true weight gain someone might experience freshman year is likely to be less than 15 pounds (research points to a 2-5 pound gain, on average), these tips can help students make healthy choices during their college years.

Eat at regular mealtimes. Avoid going longer than 3 to 4 hours in between meals. Snacks help bridge the gap between mealtimes – especially when classes interfere with traditional mealtimes. Don’t let class get in the way of you eating breakfast, lunch or dinner!

Meet with a campus or local dietitian for an assessment of your dietary habits and for help making healthy food choices on and off campus.

Avoid frequent late night eating. While it is common to stay up late in college, be sure you eat according to your hunger levels rather than just because food is available. It can be tempting to overdo it on “free” food or food that you might not normally have ever eaten so late at night. However, frequent events like this can lead to unhealthy eating. Granted, it may be needed to have one or two pieces of pizza if dinner was at 5:00pm and you are still up studying at 10:00pm. Try to keep portion sizes in mind and mix up the routine. One night might be pizza, another might be yogurt and granola.

Stay hydrated! Many people often confuse hunger and thirst. Your brain needs water, just as much as it needs food.

Continue (or begin) incorporating regular physical activity into your schedule. A healthy balance is important – too much or too little exercise can interfere with healthy weight and stress management. See what clubs or classes are available, too. Classes like yoga and pilates are great, as they incorporate mind and body balance.

If you find yourself eating or restricting food in response to stress or anxiety, try to become more mindful about eating. Mindfulness is about being conscious about why you are eating. Are you hungry? Tired? Bored? Sad? The moment you begin to capture the true feeling of what is going on inside you, you can become more mindful about when you are hungry and when you are satisfied (not starving or painfully full).

If you struggle with separating food from your feelings, you are not alone. Seek out someone on or off campus to discuss your situation. Counselors, therapists, doctors and dietitians can all play a role in helping you to achieve life balance. There should be no stigma associated with seeking out someone to help you. Most people benefit from guidance—so seek out the options available to you!

Julie Whittington is a Registered Dietitian in the Lake Norman area. Contact her at[email protected].

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