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How to Stay Fit on the College Meal Plan & Avoid the Freshman Fifteen

By Denise Minger

College is a time for expanding minds, expanding knowledge and -- for many students -- expanding waistlines. The "freshman 15" is no myth: stressful lifestyles, late-night study snacks, lack of exercise and high-calorie dorm food leave plenty of fledgling undergrads battling the bulge. Although freshman weight gain is common, it isn't inevitable. By choosing your foods and activities wisely, you can end your first college year as slim as you started.

Center your meals on low-calorie foods like fruit, salads, lean protein and grains; just because you're away from home doesn't mean you can shun the vegetables. Most dining halls offer a mix of greasy, high-fat fare and healthier food options; so choose the latter whenever possible. An occasional night of pizza won't spell disaster for your weight, but routinely indulging in high-calorie foods will.

Monitor your portion sizes. Many college meal plans offer large meals and "all you can eat" menu options, which are prime opportunities to overeat. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness signals, and stop eating when you're satisfied -- not necessarily when your plate is clean.

Limit your use of high-calorie condiments and toppings such as butter, margarine, mayonnaise, oil, full-fat salad dressings, peanut butter, gravy, cream cheese and sour cream. These items can quickly increase the calorie content of your meals, gradually leading to weight gain.

Eat slowly and allow plenty of time for each meal. According to the UCLA Student Nutrition Action Committee, it can take up to 20 minutes before "fullness" signals reach your brain when eating -- making it hard to gauge your true hunger when you scarf down a plate of food right before class. Don't eat in a rush, and take the time to savor each bite that hits your tongue.

Avoid skipping meals -- especially breakfast. Ironically, missing meals can cause you to become ravenous later on, leading to poor food choices and overeating. Adhering to a consistent eating schedule will keep your appetite at an even keel and make it easier to choose healthy menu items.

Choose low-calorie beverages. Food isn't the only weight-raising culprit to watch out for: excess calories can also creep into your diet via sodas, smoothies, milkshakes, fruit juice and sweetened coffee. Limit your intake of caloric drinks and choose water, tea or diet beverages when possible.

Participate in physical activities such as jogging, swimming, team sports or weight training. Even when consuming a healthy diet, staying active is critical for preventing the pounds from sliding on -- and, unlike high school, college doesn't always include structured activity times like PE. If the weather is too inclement for outdoor activities, most college campuses have gyms or athletic facilities available for student use.

Tips

To prepare for late-night study sessions, keep your dorm room's mini-fridge stocked with healthy snacks -- such as vegetables with hummus, low-fat yogurt and fruit. This ensures you won't have to make a midnight run to a vending machine or fast-food joint.

Warnings

Along with being high in calories, alcohol can impair your judgment, arouse hunger and encourage you to make poor food choices. Avoid excessive drinking to curb alcohol-related weight gain.

If you feel yourself developing an unhealthy relationship with food -- such as by severely dieting or eating for emotional reasons -- consider contacting a school psychologist or counselor.

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