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Overeating Students Graded on the Bulge

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. _ If there's any excuse for overeating, it's got to be exam time, when stressed-out students cram down food while cramming information into their heads.

But who needs an excuse?

The strain of being new to campus, or under the gun to maintain a good grade-point average, often results in packing on extra pounds.

For years, this "syndrome" has been known as the Freshman 15, especially associated with freshman students who are like deer in the headlights, scared, maybe away from home for the first time, and with access to food almost any time they like. The 15 refers to the amount of weight students are liable to gain, particularly during their first year of college.

Cornell University actually tested this theory and earlier this year released the results of a study showing college freshmen gain an average of 4.2 pounds just during their first 12 weeks on campus.

The freshmen studied gained about 0.3 pound per week, which is almost 11 times more than the weekly weight gain expected in 17- and 18-year-olds and almost 20 times more than the average weight gain of an American adult, Cornell researchers said.

The study pinned some of the blame for the weight gain on all-you-can-eat campus dining halls and the large portions students can stuff themselves with. Easy availability of food translated into expanding waistlines.

No one really needs a study to demonstrate that. Do the math: Food used as comfort, plus lack of self-control, plus lack of physical exercise, equals loads of extra pounds.

Research has already shown that obesity rates have risen drastically in the United States, and 13 percent of children and adolescents are now overweight or obese, which represents more than a doubling in the last 30 years.

"Students need to figure out how they can get more activity, whether it's going to the gym or just going walking with a friend," suggests Marilyn Sparling, a dietitian-clinician at Duke University Medical Center. "When you're stressed out over an exam or a paper, get up from the desk and get out and walk for 30 minutes.

"Even though you have food around you when you're growing up at home, it's different at college," says Sparling. "All of a sudden, you have total control over your food intake. This is a good time to develop healthy habits that you can carry with you though life."

The question is, will students give portion control priority? It's far better to attack the problem on the front end, than to end up trying to get rid of extra pounds, but sometimes we don't learn that lesson until we're battling the bulge.

And Americans aren't the only ones concerned with youthful weight gain.

More than 30 youth sports and physical fitness leaders from around the world are expected to participate in the first-ever International Summit next week in Atlanta. It's aimed at combating the obesity epidemic among today's young people by using sports and physical activity.

That's certainly a much healthier approach for dealing with weight gain than developing eating disorders, which can become the preferred method of weight control, particularly among young women on campus.

Carolyn Susman writes for the Palm Beach Post. E-mail:

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