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How to avoid the ‘freshman 15’

Chances are that your friends are also trying to avoid extra pounds, so scheduling workouts around study sessions can provide incentives. (Lordn/Getty Images/iStock)

With college in full swing, health-conscious freshmen may have an extra worry on their minds: the dreaded “freshman 15.” Amid the unlimited food at the dining hall, no parents telling you to eat your veggies and late-night study sessions with plenty of snacks, the freshman 15 seems inevitable. But is it just a myth? Here’s what you need to know, plus my tips for eating healthfully at college.

Do most freshmen really gain 15 pounds during their first year as undergrads? Research tells us no. Several studies have looked at the freshman 15 phenomenon and found that while weight gain is common during freshman year, 15 pounds is more than the average. The actual weight gain of freshmen varies greatly among different studies, with an overall average of 7½ pounds. A meta-analysis of studies examining the freshman 15 phenomenon found that although nearly two-thirds of students gain weight as freshmen, fewer than 10 percent gain 15 pounds or more.

So should you worry about gaining those 15 pounds? Probably not. But that’s not to say that you should be hitting the dessert bar in the cafeteria and having pizza and beer every night, either.

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Even though the freshman 15 is really more like the freshman seven, the problem is that habits that cause significant weight gain during freshman year aren’t likely to stop when the year ends. Creating beneficial habits during your college years can set you up for success not only in beating weight gain while you’re in college, but also in establishing habits you need to stay healthy afterward. Here’s where to start:

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WASHINGTON, DC - Earl Grey Tea and Brandy Poached Pears photographed in Washington, DC. (Photo by Deb Lindsey For The Washington Post). (Deb Lindsey)

Stick to structure

Fit breakfast, lunch and dinner into your schedule every day, with a healthy snack between meals if needed. Getting into a routine and creating structure for your meals will help you feel more in control of what you’re eating. Knowing that you’ll eat three meals every day means you can plan in advance for healthy options.

Be careful in the cafeteria

When your dining plan has you going to all-you-can-eat buffets every night, it can be tough to rein in your eating habits.

Take on the cafeteria in a few steps:

First, do a lap through the line to see what your options are so you can make smart decisions, rather than impulsive ones.

Grab a salad plate rather than a dinner plate — you're likely to eat less while still feeling satisfied when you eat from a smaller plate.

Next, fill half your plate with veggies — whether from the salad bar, hot bar or both. Fill a quarter of your plate with lean protein like grilled chicken or baked fish, and the last quarter of your plate with whole grains, like brown rice or whole wheat bread.

Once you’ve made your plate, don’t go back for seconds (unless you’re grabbing veggies like carrots to munch on), and skip the dessert bar in lieu of hot tea and a piece of fruit to take back to your dorm.

Get fit with friends

Chances are your friends are also trying to avoid weight gain, so create a workout group to hold one another accountable.

Print out a schedule of workout classes that your school gym offers and highlight classes that you’ll try together. That way you’ll know in advance when you’ll work out, and you can plan study sessions accordingly.

Having friends to work out with always makes exercise more fun, and it’s not nearly as easy to call off a workout when you know there will be people expecting to see you at the gym.

If the gym isn’t your thing, take advantage of intramural sports or join a club that will get you active regularly. These are great ways to meet like-minded people, too.

Don’t drink your calories

Whether you’re downing energy drinks and mochas to wake up for class or having one too many beers on the weekend, those calories add up fast.

For a caffeine boost, stick to black coffee or tea — or add just one packet of sugar, rather than ordering a pre-sweetened drink that’s loaded with sugar.

Freshmen shouldn’t be drinking alcohol in the first place, but it ends up happening whether it’s legal or not. Remember that alcohol is empty calories, and most cocktails add more empty calories from sugar, too.

You’re also more likely to indulge in not-so-healthy late-night snacks with alcohol in your system, so limit your intake or avoid it all together.

Stock up on healthy snacks

It’s easier to avoid snacking on junk food if you don’t keep it within arm’s reach. Rather than having bags of chips and candy on hand for late-night studying, stock your dorm room with healthy snacks like individually portioned packs of nuts, whole grain granola bars with fewer than 5 grams of sugar, and fresh fruit, yogurt, veggies, and hummus in your mini fridge.

This is also a great strategy for healthier eats after a party. Knowing you have healthy snacks in your dorm room saves you from the temptation to grab takeout or pizza on the way home.

Christy Brissette is a dietitian, foodie and president of Follow her on Twitter @80twentyrule.

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