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Good eating for freshmen

A year of eating dangerously: From the residence cafeteria---the chamber of seconds---to the urge to hit the books (and bars) instead of the gym, first year plays havoc with your eating habits. Here’s how to philosopher’s beergut.

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A warning to all students enrolled in post-secondary education: your risk of weight gain is significantly higher than that of the general population. Luckily, it's not as high as you may think.

Weight gain during university has been researched for over 25 years. Numerous studies have shown that university students gain more weight than their community counterparts. The critical period is the freshman year.

You may fear the Freshman 15. But the average amount of weight gained during university is actually five pounds.

This is contrary to the popular belief that students gain the Freshman 15, a term coined by Seventeen magazine in 1989. The media continues to warn about the Freshman 15. A quick Google search reveals over six million hits.

Does this mean you can throw caution to the wind, eating as many Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans as you desire? Not exactly.

"In terms of personality development," says Michael Vallis, a behavioural psychologist with Capital Health who works with obese patients. "This age group is undergoing a transition involving lots of autonomy and independence. [The students] are no longer having food prepared for them and groceries no longer appear at their houses."

Since the stove is viewed as a source of unnecessary work, students often turn to the microwave when it comes time to "cook." Such habits can stick for life. Five pounds now could be 50 pounds in the future.

Vallis describes the following tendency, which holds true for many students because the university setting is conducive to this irregular eating pattern:

Time of day 7am–5pm 5pm-11pm

Calorie intake 20 percent 80 percent

Calories expended 80 percent 20 percent

"Many students grab a quick muffin and coffee, then run to class," he explains. "This pattern of under-eating during the day leads to overeating in the evening because you are feeling deprived. In this state, it's easier to give into cravings."

Ryan Cairns is personal trainer and fitness instructor. He also runs a program at Dalhousie called The Freshman 15. In the program, students learn how to stay healthy through exercise and healthy eating. Cairns says that although the Freshman 15 is exaggerated, weight gain is very real. Cairns talks about the ease of eating Kraft Dinner, which is 79 cents per box and takes only minutes to prepare.

"But the body is a smart thing," he says. "KD is white pasta with high sodium, cheese and four preservatives---the nutritional value is not high. After eating it, your body is still looking for more nutrients. So you crave more, and therefore eat more."

With scholastic and social demands, physical activity can take a back seat during university. Cairns points out that when students come to university, they are often no longer playing their high school team sports. Instead of quidditch practices---though there is a league in Halifax--- books and butterbeer are the new favourites. Although gym memberships are usually included with the university fees, some people never go.

"Now, it's up to the students to manage exercise on their own. But many don't know what to do or are intimidated at the gym. They're also spending many hours in front of the computer or studying, often while mindlessly eating," says Cairns.

University is a huge social transition, and not surprisingly, alcohol consumption--- along with binge drinking---increases during this time. Much of the weight gain is directly connected to alcohol intake, which means lots of calories and no nutrition. Alcohol contains seven calories per gram (fat contains nine calories per gram; protein and carbohydrates each contain four).

In addition to drinking all you can, most post-secondary institutions have all-you-can-eat dining halls. For example, at Mount Saint Vincent University, you can receive all your meals at the school cafeteria for $3,325 annually. Students may consume as much or as little as they choose. One study reported that students lose weight when they move off-campus. The authors attributed the weight loss to no longer consuming meals from the cafeteria food services.

Cairns says that although dining halls provide the venue for weight gain, they don't necessarily equal weight gain.

"People go into the dining hall and make poor food choices. But you can still make poor choices living in an apartment. People need to be educated on how to prepare and cook meals. Grocery stores are similar to buffets."

The aisles are a smorgasbord of healthy and unhealthy choices. For Cairns, lack of knowledge is a central reason for weight gain. "People who don't reach their goals either lack education or motivation," he says. If they knew what to do at a gym or how to cook healthy foods, then they would do it."

For Vallis, education is not enough. If a university is trying to support the intellectual and professional development of their young wizards, they should also support their health through offering the right food.

"Are universities just about brainiacs?" he asks. "Are they only interested in the neck up, or the whole person? If we are interested in the whole person, then shouldn't we take responsibility for the food we serve? Dining halls serve lots of calorie-dense, nutrition-poor food. Meanwhile, the strongest predictor of what people eat is availability."

Vallis cites a study showing that increasing the number of choices is directly related to how much you eat. All-you-can-eat buffets provide the perfect opportunity for mindless eating.

"Eating is very biological; we have a drive to do it," says Vallis. "Human instincts to store and seek food have left us completely unprepared for mochaccino Frappuccinos, all-you-can-eat scenarios and fast food."

Excessive fear about weight gain can also have negative effects---this is a population who may already be overly preoccupied with its body images.

"It's dangerous because universities are breeding grounds for body image/eating disorders," Cairns says. "We try to encourage healthy living, but we don't want to make students so neurotic that they take it to the other extreme---like becoming anorexic, bulimic or develop body dysmorphia. Some of the people I train are actually afraid to look in the mirror."

Vallis agrees. "We need to support the vulnerable population in which we have a two-sided coin. It's interesting because in this population, both things"---weight gain and the development of eating disorders--- "are possible." He emphasizes that it is not only a matter of weight, but health.

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