You’ve probably heard about the dreaded “freshman 15,” but it may be something of an exaggeration: There’s no hard data showing that students pack on 15 pounds in their first year of college. In fact, studies have found that the typical co-ed gains between 3 and 10 pounds during the first two years of school.

But why quibble over numbers?

The scary reality is that students are vulnerable to weight gain when they go off to college, and it’s easy to see why. After all, this is the first time you’re left to your own devices to plan your meals and manage your diet.

On top of that, there are the temptations of campus life: Dining plans that let you eat as much as you want; study sessions followed by midnight fast-food runs; boxes of cookies that you devour as you read; and parties, lots of them, where beer and other high-calorie drinks are the beverages of choice. If you aren’t careful, pretty soon those skinny jeans will make you look anything but.

With a little planning though, you can maintain a healthy weight when you’re away at school. Follow these ten tips to stay in great shape:

1. Remember the “most important” meal. A healthy breakfast gives your body the fuel it needs to get going and to prevent you from over-eating later on. Even if you’ve got late classes and sleep in, start your day with a meal that includes protein and fiber.

2. Make healthy choices. Actually, those fries and burgers probably smell better than they taste. At the dining hall, avoid greasy foods and opt for grilled meats and steamed veggies. (Go easy on the pasta!) Become a regular at the salad bar, but don’t always top your greens with creamy dressing and bacon bits. And remember, just because a meal plan allows for “all you can eat,” you don’t have to take full advantage.

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3. Stock up on snacks. Go to the grocery store and load up on healthy items like apples, carrots, yogurt, granola bars, low-fat cheese and whole-grain crackers. Having these provisions on hand will reduce the urge to order a pizza at the end of the evening when you’re just dying for something to eat!

4. Watch for mindless munching. Put a serving of chips in a bowl rather than eating them from the bag. Take two cookies, then stash the box away so you don’t end up polishing them all off. If you’re prone to binging, you might try keeping a food journal. Experts say people consume less when they write down every morsel they put in their mouth.

5. Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated helps to regulate your appetite and keep you feeling full. So keep a water bottle in your backpack. At meals, H2O is a wiser choice than sodas or other sweetened beverages.

6. Get enough sleep. Only a handful of students make it through college without pulling an occasional all-nighter. And while that’s okay once in a while, you should aim for seven to eight hours of shut-eye on most nights. Sleep deprivation has been associated with overeating and weight gain.

7. Make use of the gym. Your tuition and fees typically include membership in the college gym and, at many schools, the facilities are pretty sweet! Pick an activity you enjoy and make regular exercise a part of your routine.

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8. Shun that shuttle. If you go to a big university, there may be buses to transport you from one side of campus to the other. You don’t have to take them! Get in the habit of walking from class to class; it’s an easy way to burn up calories. Also, make it a practice to use the stairs instead of an elevator. It will help you to stay in shape—and it’s environmentally friendly too.

9. Know the dangers of drinking. There are many reasons to avoid indulging when you’re a college student, but here’s a biggie: Beer, wine and alcoholic beverages are filled with empty calories. Many experts say that drinking is the main reason students gain weight.

10. Cut yourself some slack. No matter how hard you try, at some point you will probably indulge in a late-night pizza, a whole pint of ice cream or a few too many cans of beer. But don’t use that as an excuse to fall into dangerous habits. An occasional misstep is fine—as long as you quickly recoup and get right back on the path toward good health.


Don’t Get Sick!

It happens every semester: When one student comes down with a cold or flu, others in the dorm fall ill too. But while you can’t avoid germs completely, you can take steps to reduce your risk.

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Wash your hands frequently. It’s one of the easiest ways to stop the spread of viruses and bacteria. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer and use it.

You don’t have to share. If a friend with a cold tries to take a sip of your coffee or a forkful of your food, stop him in his tracks. It’s better to seem germ phobic than to spend a week in bed.

Rest if you need to. Feel like you might be coming down something? Resist the urge to tough it out. Instead, get plenty of sleep and lots of fluids so you can recover quickly instead of getting worse.