Student Life

Parents: How to Handle the “Freshman 15”

As students adapt to their first semester (and year) at college, the “Freshman 15” could be a byproduct. This phenomenon is the supposed number of pounds freshmen gain, though the actual effects of college on students’ weight vary significantly. Regardless, college life introduces pitfalls that can compromise your student’s health and weight.

At college, changes in routine and other emotional factors can lead to comfort eating or a disregard for healthy habits. They can also lead to not eating, and weight loss can be just as big a problem (stay tuned for another article on this).

Late-night study groups will find the only inexpensive, available foods to also be the most unhealthy, at the fast food joint on the corner. It’s no surprise that value meals have very little actual value. When fast food is regularly eaten late, it’s even worse. If your student eats his biggest meal at midnight every night, after a long day of class, studying and socializing, his body doesn’t have time to metabolize the food before bedtime.

Accompanying late-night food is often alcohol, which packs lots of empty calories. When students refill cups from a keg, play drinking games or tailgate for hours, they often lose track of the amount of alcohol and calories they intake. Even coffee and energy drinks can be loaded with sugar and calories. As students rely on caffeine for studying and paying attention in class, their bodies react negatively, especially if accompanied by skipped meals or unhealthy snacks.

Obviously, eating in moderation and working out will curb weight gain. For college freshmen, that means not treating the cafeteria like a buffet; just because your student can eat cereal, waffles, bananas, coffee, juice and ice cream for breakfast doesn’t mean he should. That also means eating sensibly: remembering the food pyramid and intentionally eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean protein will give your student’s body what it needs. Taking a break from studying to go for a jog or lift weights will benefit both your student’s mind and body.

However, for many students, one appeal of freshman year is getting away from rules or even advice like this from parents. So how can parents support their students in staying healthy, without being overbearing or too involved?

Consider the following ways to contribute to your student’s health and wellbeing:

Send care packages regularly. In these days of e-mail and text messages, a tangible gift from home makes a huge impact. Send your student a note, coupons and gift cards in a care package. Add granola bars, popcorn, apples, trail mix and bottled water, which will help combat the fast food snare during late-night study sessions.

Be thoughtful with Christmas and birthday gifts. So many social gatherings in college include eating and drinking, and gift cards to local restaurants might be a much-appreciated gift. However, you can encourage your student to socialize in more active ways by paying for yoga classes, giving a disc for Frisbee golf or shopping for new running shoes. Besides warding off weight gain, staying active will keep your student’s immune system up, promote endorphins that will improve his mood and keep his mind more alert for studying.

Make being health-conscious convenient. While your student continues to gain independence throughout this season of his life, he will still need help from you. Regular doctor and dentist check ups might fall off your student’s radar or be a hassle to set up in a new city. Discuss with your student when he’ll be home during breaks, and help him plan to set check up appointments then.

Watch for obsessive behaviors. If your student seems too worried about weight gain, obsessive behaviors might turn into eating disorders, which occur among both males and females. In a new environment like college, your student might feel like the only thing she can control is her weight, which can become an obsession. Look for warning signs like excessive dieting or exercising, extreme fluctuations in weight and depression or anxiety. Above all, remind your student that it’s normal for her body to react to the changes of college.

Let your student learn. Although you may be well aware that your student has proven the “Freshman 15” to be true, give him space. No one wants to hear that they’ve gained weight, and college students are no exception. Let your student sort out his diet and exercise on his own. By quietly encouraging healthfulness, parents can support their students and watch them gain independence, even if it’s accompanied by a few pounds.

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