The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 23, 2012

The freshman 15: College offers both healthy and unhealthy opportunities

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

— Here’s the good news: If you’re a college freshman worried about the infamous “freshman 15” — those extra pounds that supposedly accumulate on a new college student’s body the first year — there are studies out there it's a myth.

Here’s the bad news: There are other studies that show weight gain is very much a reality.

Whichever studies you choose to read, one thing is beyond debate: The first year of college presents young people with the perfect place to fall into bad habits, eat tons of crappy food and do it all in an environment that doesn’t have built-in monitors (parents) who can prevent people from self-destruction.

“The hardest thing is they’re in the midst of a lot of change,” says Erin Gonzalez, a dietitian at the Mankato Clinic. “Before it was very structured. Parents or school told them when and what to eat. Now, they go to the school cafeteria and it’s a buffet.”

Whichever study you believe, there are several factors that negatively affect a person’s health and nutrition: lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, unhealthy snacking habits, poor food available on campus and drinking unhealthy amounts of alcohol.

Exercise, the linchpin of any weight-loss regimen, can be a difficult sell to someone who hasn’t had a history of being active. And with a sea of stress all around them — tough academic demands, new social demands, homesickness — it may not be the easiest time to start a new exercise routine. It’s still important to try, though. Exercise increases a body’s metabolism and supplies energy throughout the day.

At Minnesota State University, the campus recreation facilities are among the finest around. When prospective students come for campus visits, one of the key stops is Otto Arena, where there are multiple courts for basketball and volleyball, dozens of treadmills, stationary bikes and ellipticals equipped with computers, running track and enough workout equipment for its 14,000 students.

Todd Pfingsten, director of campus recreation at MSU, said they get about 2,000 people each day through the turnstiles at Otto Arena.

He said the use of the facility is boosted by several factors.

“It’s a combination of both word getting out about our facility, and they’re making better health choices,” Pfingsten said.

During tours of the facility and summer orientations, Pfingsten said they impress upon students the importance a well-rounded college life.

“We talk about the need for getting involved, getting engaged, the need for health and wellness,” Pfingsten said

If you’ve got the exercise part down, the rest comes down to what — and how much — you’re putting into your mouth.

Snacks can be a killer, Gonzalez said. And while it’s not realistic to do away with snacks, dramatic improvements can be made on the nature of those snacks.

She said instead of potato chips or Cheetos, try keeping a little Greek yogurt or string cheese on hand. Pre-portioned nuts are also a good idea. And, of course, fresh fruit or vegetables, while they may be a tough sell, always do a body good.

Gonzales also advises drinking plenty of water. Staying well hydrated can stave off hunger. And with alcohol use, drinking can lower blood sugar, which can cause hunger.

“Dehydration can mask hunger.”

Finally, Gonzalez said it’s extremely important to not skip breakfast. A healthful breakfast lays a good nutritional foundation for the rest of the day and can prevent over-snacking.

“If you skip that meal in the morning, your body will try to play catch up later.”