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A parent's guide to the Freshman 15

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 11:02 AM

What should you say to your college kid when he or she comes home for Thanksgiving having all too clearly gained the notorious Freshman 15?

Not. One. Word.

So says Daphne Oz, author of "The Dorm Room Diet" and daughter of famed cardiovascular surgeon Mehmet Oz. Daphne Oz knows what it's like to be an overweight adolescent in a health-conscious family. Because she lost weight when she went to college, Oz also knows how to navigate the stresses and temptations of campus life without packing on the pounds.

Oz, 24, insists that silence in the face of the Freshman 15 is a parent's best strategy, no matter how stressed or uncomfortable it makes you. "This is your child's first time at home since leaving. They want to come back to their comfort zone.

"You will end up in a massive family feud if you get on their case for packing on a few extra pounds," Oz says.

Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietician and nutritionist at the University of Maryland at College Park's health center, agrees. "Have your child lead the conversation," she suggests. "She will probably bring it up."

Several studies have found that when first-year college students gain weight it's typically more like five pounds, not 15. But that's still enough to be noticeable, especially this time of year, Jacubczak notes, when everyone unpacks the jeans and sweaters they haven't worn since the last time the air was cool. That's when they finally realize they've gained weight, Jakubczak says. One way or another, by the time they go home for Thanksgiving, "usually, the student knows," she says.

Nibble around the edges

Even if you never actually talk about weight, there are things you can do - and others you shouldn't - to help your daughter or son (yes, the boys gain, too!) learn more healthful habits. (These tips are also useful, of course, when dealing with a kid who has expressed a willingness to talk about his weight.)

Don't scrutinize what they eat on Thanksgiving. "A holiday that celebrates eating may not be the time to decide to have the conversation" about overeating, Jakubczak says. Instead of asking, "Do you think you need that extra helping of stuffing?," focus on letting your child enjoy the traditional foods that make the holiday special.

Do make it easier not to overeat, though, by serving the feast on smaller plates, Oz suggests. And start a tradition of serving soup or salad before the main meal.

Do invite your kid grocery-shopping and help him or her learn to choose healthful items. Stock the kitchen with fresh fruit and whole-grain cereals, and be sure to place them at eye level in the fridge or pantry. Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter, Jakubczak suggests.

Do model healthful eating habits such as drinking milk and eating breakfast. Jakubczak says parents might be surprised by how closely their kids watch them.

Don't just sit there. Incorporate physical activity (after-dinner walks, a football toss in the yard) into your family's Thanksgiving traditions, Jakubczak says.

Nutrition 101

If your child does broach the topic of weight gain, you can go a bit further in helping him or her get on a better track back at college:

Do direct your child toward resources that can help him or her eat more healthfully at school. Jakubczak recommends Oz's book or "The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus" by Ann Selkowitz Litt.

Do advise your child that it's okay to once in a while indulge in a special treat, such as a sliver of birthday cake. Skipping altogether leads to a sense of deprivation and perhaps more cravings. Even pizza's fine sometimes, Jakubczak says, so long as your kid decides ahead of time to enjoy just a slice or two, and preferably the veggie-topped variety.

4 Do brainstorm activities your child can do with friends that don't involve food. "Instead of a coffee date, get a group of friends to take walks around campus," Oz says.

Do explore the services your kid's college offers. Most have health centers whose staff can help devise a healthful eating and exercise plan and suggest ways to manage stress, sleep schedules and other factors that can lead to weight gain, Jakubczak says.

"Don't worry too much," Oz counsels. "Most kids lose it [the extra weight] second semester or next year."

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