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Eat right 101

Here are some tips to keep from gaining the dreaded ‘freshman 15'

Going away to college often means a crash course on how to feed yourself. You're no longer eating home-cooked meals under Mom's watchful eye. There's little time between classes to grab a decent meal, much less cook it.

Instead, you're hitting the vending machines, munching during late-night study sessions and going out for pizza with the roomies. If your dorm has no kitchen, you're at the mercy of the cafeteria or the nearest fast-food restaurant. And with a tight budget, there's the temptation to chow down whatever "free food" comes along.

These conditions are ripe for putting on the "freshman 15" pounds during your first year in college.

"Sometimes we can practically see them (students) inflating like balloons during their freshman year!" said Wayne Askew, head of the University of Utah's nutrition department.

Melanie Douglass, author of the nutrition book "Losing It!" (Deseret Book, $14.95), recalls that the "freshman 15" caught up with her in college. "My circle of friends went out to eat a lot as a group, and our waistlines paid the price for it."

She also developed a habit of eating too fast. "I'd scarf my food down in a hurry so that I could get to the next class," she said. "And to this day, my natural instinct is to eat food as fast as I can. I have to constantly force myself to slow down."

But weight gain isn't the only health concern.

Kiersten Kariya, who graduated from Brigham Young University last spring, actually lost weight her freshman year, but it wasn't a good thing. Although her off-campus apartment had a kitchen, "coming home and preparing a good meal wasn't a priority. I was taking some really hard classes and so stressed out with studying, I just didn't think about eating. At one point I mainly lived on saltine crackers and grape juice for a while," she said.

Her parents bought her a meal card so she could eat lunch on campus, "But I wasn't very smart about it. I ended up just getting smoothies every day, and they're full of sugar."

The result? "At the end of the school year, I got really sick for a few weeks because I was so exhausted."

Last year, Kariya and her four roommates began cooking together, with each responsible for one night's meal from Sunday through Thursday.

"It's been so great, I have a lot more energy, and it's a time when we can all sit down and talk," she said. "Since you only have to do one meal a week, we make really nice things with vegetables and rolls and salad, and we all help clean up. We definitely want to continue it again this year."

Sitting down to regular meals keeps students from "grazing" throughout the day, said Diana McGuire, a nutrition professor at BYU. "Grazing usually leads to excess consumption of calories, because your body never has a chance to really feel what it's like to be full or hungry."

Sharing meals among roommates is great if schedules don't conflict, said Kristi Spence, a U. sports nutrition graduate student who lived in campus dorms all four years of school. "But in college, time is of the essence. If schedules are different, it may be a good idea for each roommate to buy his or her own food, label it in the fridge and then plan roommate dinners as time allows."

Matt Hauck, 21, of Kaysville, had a cafeteria meal plan for three days of the week during his freshman year at Utah State University. The other days, he often relied on quick-fix foods and frozen microwave meals.

"I didn't have much money, so I learned to eat really slow so I would feel full with less food," he said.

He and his roommates had a kitchen, and once in awhile they cooked and ate meals together. Sometimes on Sunday evenings, they would whip up pancakes and invite everyone over. "It was a great way to meet girls," he added.

If you're eating at the cafeteria, "Remember to keep your plate colorful. Lots of fresh fruits and veggies — and different colors — indicate a well-balanced and vitamin-rich meal," advised Spence. "Choose lean meat and get it at the grill. Often putting your own meal together rather than getting what is being served from the hot-food line can be the best way to keep saturated fat down."

"Plan ahead" is the mantra for healthy eating, said McGuire. "Most unhealthy eating is spur of the moment, so have in mind a few places that you can get healthy but inexpensive foods when you're hungry. What's in the vending machines? What's at the bookstore? What are the closest fast-food places, and what are my best choices there?"

Other nutrition pitfalls include late-night eating and filling up on either fast food or starchy convenience products, "like Top Ramen, macaroni and cheese or Rice-a-Roni," said Douglass.

"Often students eat dinner in campus dining halls between 6 and 7:30 p.m. If you are up until 12 or 1 a.m. studying, it's normal to be hungry," pointed out Spence. "But often, students eat too much and then go to bed. Keeping healthy snacks in your room can take the hunger edge off. But even healthy food can result in weight gain if you eat too much of it. A snack is just that — a snack."

As for fast food, "A basic cheeseburger, large fries and 32-ounce soda meal has a good 1,300 calories, 47 grams of fat, an entire day's worth of saturated fat and more than a day's worth of sodium," pointed out Douglass. "And that's just one meal of the day. Ouch."

It's tempting to rely on microwave mixes, such as Kraft's Easy Mac, Uncle Ben's precooked rice or ramen. Last week General Mills launched single-serve Hamburger Helper — just add water and zap it in the microwave. But most of these processed meals are high in carbohydrates and sodium, Douglass said. (If you want to eat them occasionally, boost the nutrition content by stirring in a handful of sugar snap peas, frozen broccoli florets or other veggies).

Two new books discuss college eating — "How to Survive Your Freshman Year," published by Hundreds of Heads Books ($13.95) and "The Dorm Room Diet," by Daphne Oz, a Princeton University student ($16.95). "How to Survive" gives tips from real students, such as showing up to every academic speech and campus event for the free food. Several students warned about the hazards of late-night pizza-and-beer binges.

Oz wrote that at first she was so excited about all her cafeteria's options that she loaded her tray with a bit of everything.

"Eventually the cafeteria menu repeated itself and it dawned on me that it was not my last chance to have a grilled cheese if I didn't eat one that day. I began to adjust my eating habits so that I wasn't consuming half my body weight in food at every meal."

She pointed out that a tortilla wrap is actually a more condensed form of carbohydrates than regular bread, with about twice as many calories as two pieces of whole-grain bread.

She advised labeling your items in the fridge, "Or you might find that Sticky Fingers in the room next to you made off with what was supposed to be tomorrow's breakfast."

When it comes to fridges, plan to use up perishables quickly so they don't get lost, advised Kariya. "When you're sharing it with four or five other people, everything is just slammed in together, and a lot of times you forget about what's in there until you end up with this disgusting slime ball."

E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com