URBANA – College life can be dangerous for the waistline, as many university freshmen know.
Late-night pizza, all-you-can-eat dorm food, stress and, in some cases, alcohol all contribute to what's been known for years as the "freshman 15" – the 15 pounds, more or less, that can pile on in the first semester or two of college.
A new research project at the University of Illinois will study whether using peers to teach healthy lifestyle choices can prevent the Freshman 15.
Under Project PEER, junior and senior student mentors in exercise and nutrition will teach freshmen women the basics about weight management, nutrition and exercise, and provide support all year.
Gaining weight doesn't have to be an inevitable consequence of going away to college, said Ellen Evans, UI associate professor in kinesiology and community health, who is co-directing the project with Karen Chapman-Novakofski of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.
Why does it happen?
College is a transition to adulthood: Teens are on their own for the first time, able to eat, drink and exercise as much or little as they like.
"You come into this unfamiliar environment, you don't necessarily know that many people, everything's new, so it's really easy to become stressed," said mentor Amanda Ramirez, a UI senior in kinesiology and gerontology.
College social life revolves around food or drink. Pizza is a staple. Fast food is cheap and easy. And residence halls offer "a buffet at every single meal," Evans said.
"There are healthy choices, but it's just easy to go the other way," Ramirez said. "You can have ice cream for every meal of the day if you want, which I'm pretty sure I saw people doing."
At the same time, students are less active. Those who played organized sports in high school suddenly find themselves without that exercise safety net, as only elite athletes move on to college teams. It's easy to fall into bad habits, Ramirez said.
"They're more on their own. There's lots of choices, but they're not structured," Evans said.
While they may have had chores at home, now all they have to take care of is a tiny dorm room. Buses pick them up at the curb and deliver them to their classes.
"They're virtually doing nothing other than intentional exercise. That takes a lot of motivation and time management," Evans said.
Under Project PEER, 300 freshman women will be divided into two groups – a control, which will have minimal interaction with the research team, representing a typical freshman experience; and a second group mentored by older students with expertise in exercise and nutrition.
Two peer educators, one in nutrition and one in kinesiology, will work with 10 to 12 students, serving as "big sisters" and wellness coaches, Evans said. They will meet an hour a week for the first six weeks of the semester, then continue to support the students through e-mail and other Web sources.
The mentors, who were trained last year, will teach the students about sensible portion sizes, healthy food sources, alcohol consumption, working out, and psychological aspects such as goal-setting, Ramirez said. But they can choose where and when to meet: a gym for a fitness lecture, for example, or a restaurant where they can go over healthy food choices.
"It's very interactive," Ramirez said. "I'm really hoping that we have great results. I don't think enough college students take this sort of multifaceted approach to their health."
Other studies are using Internet resources to educate students about the Freshman 15, but the key here is mentoring, Evans said. Peer education has been used successfully in other areas of health and nutrition, such as breast-feeding, smoking prevention and safe-sex practices, she said.
"We know that it works," Evans said.
The idea is to intervene at a critical point in a student's life, when healthy – or unhealthy – habits are established, Evans said. Increasingly, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are showing up earlier in life, partly because people are getting heavier at younger ages, Evans said. Also, this is the age where women establish bone-mass density, which can help prevent osteoporosis later in life, Ramirez said.
"Good habits start early," Evans said.
The Freshman 15 affects men, too, but researchers wanted to focus on women in this study. Women are at higher risk for obesity, and "there are different social dynamics with men and women regarding weight gain," Evans said. Adding men would change the interactions in the peer groups, she said.
"Weight is a very emotional subject," she said.
Next fall, the study will be repeated with new freshmen. During the final year of the project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the peer educators will teach a course on weight management.
Freshman Heather Kole, 18, of Glendale Heights didn't enroll in the study but thinks it's valuable. A former softball player, she's never been much of a junk food eater and works out three days a week.
But she can see how the transition to college, with so much food readily available, can cause problems, especially with late-night snack bars open at her dining hall.
"My house never had that much food at one time," she said. "It is tempting."
Twelve steps to avoiding the 'freshman 15'
How can you prevent putting on those extra pounds? Focus on fitness, nutrition and overall health, not just weight, experts say:
— Adopt good habits. The best way to beat weight gain is to prevent it, through a balanced diet, regular exercise and plenty of sleep, says kidshealth.org.
— Avoid fad diets. Skipping meals or trying the latest diet won't work long-term. Stay active and make small changes you can live with – cut out the soda or midnight snacks.
— Beware the scale. It's only one sign of improvement, along with your energy level, how clothes fit, how you feel, improved strength and endurance. "The scale doesn't tell the whole story," says Janet Kroencke, who oversees wellness programs for the UI Division of Campus Recreation.
— Weigh yourself once a week – no more. Weight can fluctuate by several pounds throughout the week or day.
— Gaining isn't always bad. If you exercise, you can gain muscle weight while losing fat. Set workout goals around miles, laps or sets rather than the number on the scale.
— Get the facts on nutrition. Campus Recreation sponsors healthy cooking classes and other nutrition programs in its new Wellness Center at the Activities and Recreation Center (formerly IMPE). McKinley Health Center also offers free nutrition education.
— Don't obsess about calories. Better to eat an egg sandwich than a rice cake, which has virtually no nutrition, Kroencke says.
— Get a good start. Eat a healthy breakfast to curb hunger later. Carry healthy snacks with you rather than grabbing a candy bar on the run.
— Eat right. Avoid eating while stressed, studying or watching TV. Eat slowly and at regular times. Keep snacks to a minimum. Pick lower-fat options and watch portion size. Steer clear of fast food. Skip the soda and drink water or skim milk instead.
— Take a healthy food attitude. If you find yourself fixating on food or your weight, or feeling guilty about what you eat, ask a doctor or someone at the health center for advice.
— Get off the couch. Check out a new cycling class. Hop on cardio machines. Jump in the pool or shoot baskets in the gym.
— Don't overdo it. Excessive exercise can hurt you. Stop or change what you're doing if you feel pain. Ease up if you can't get your breath. Stop if you feel shaky or weak. Drink plenty of fluids.
Sources: UI Division of Campus Recreation, McKinley Health Center, UI Counseling Center, kidshealth.org