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ÔFreshman 15Õ Ñ The myth debunked

By September 28, 2010

Enterprise staff writer

Anyone trying to find a table in a restaurant, a quick check-out line in a grocery store or a parking space downtown last week was likely reminded of one thing: College students are back.

And just as students were flooding back to UC Davis last week, so too were the last of the Davis High Class of 2010 heading off to college destinations of their own. No doubt most of them Ñ especially those incoming freshman Ñ were feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation that comes along with leaving home for the first time.

But Sacramento therapist Jennifer Lombardi would like to eliminate at least one common fear among college freshman: The fear of the Freshman 15.

For decades freshman have been told to expect to gain around 15 pounds during their first year of college, largely due to a change in eating habits that includes more fast food and all-you-can-eat cafeteria fare, not to mention increased alcohol intake.

But Lombardi, director of development for the Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program in Sacramento, says the Freshman 15 is little more than a myth.

ÒNone of the research supports that there ever was a Freshman 15,Ó she said. ÒBut for whatever reason, itÕs a fear that persists.Ó

According to an Auburn University study conducted in 2008, the average weight gain among women Ñ when there was a weight gain Ñ was about three pounds. For men, it was five pounds. Many students actually lost weight and others stayed the same. Still, the myth continues.

And itÕs a myth, Lombardi contended, that can trigger or worsen an eating disorder, often when students are at their most vulnerable.

ÒA critical issue is that freshman year of college coincides with one of the two primary age ranges when eating disorders develop,Ó Lombardi said. ÒFirst is between the ages of 14 and 16; and then between 17 and 19.

ÒFor people who are struggling with an eating disorder, (the myth) produces fear and anxiety,Ó she said. ÒIn students who donÕt have an eating disorder, it still creates fear and creates a negative perception of going away to college.Ó

Lombardi speaks from personal experience. She developed anorexia at the age of 16 and didnÕt begin to recover until her early 20s. She headed into college firmly believing in the myth of the Freshman 15.

ÒI was very well aware of it,Ó she said, Òand it did not help me in my recovery.Ó

College life, she noted, can be difficult enough without the myth of inevitable weight gain. Society in general, she said, tends to vilify food and praise thinness, Òand a college campus is no different.Ó

ÒStudies have shown that one in four women in college are dieting,Ó Lombardi explained.

Imagine a college freshman still in recovery for an eating disorder finding themselves in a new, sometimes stressful environment, surrounded by talk of food and dieting, on top of a fear of inevitable weight gain.

For Lombardi, who works daily with teens battling eating disorders, itÕs akin to Òtaking someone coming out of rehab as an alcoholic and giving them a job as a bartender. ItÕs a toxic environment.Ó

To help her patients, Lombardi and her colleagues at Summit Òtry to help them develop skills. We want them to lead a normal college life without being impacted by all those influences.Ó

Happily, said Lombardi, colleges themselves have made great strides in identifying and working with students at risk for or suffering from eating disorders.

ÒWe do a lot of outreach,Ó agreed Katie Cougevan, eating disorder treatment coordinator for UC Davis. ÒServices are really extensive on this campus.Ó

Those services include a campaign specifically related to the myth of the Freshman 15.

ÒAt the beginning of the year,Ó Cougevan explained, Òwe do a lot of marketing around the myth of the Freshman 15 … (and students) are always pretty adamant that the Freshman 15 is a fact. The problem is when people believe that, they have fears and anxiety and start to develop habits that fall into a disordered way of approaching food.

ÒWhat we tell people is that belief in the Freshman 15 promotes a culture of dieting, and dieting has serious implications,Ó Cougevan said.

In addition to their comprehensive outreach, the Counseling and Psychological Services program at UCD offers help year round, from classes that teach mindful eating and healthy cooking to group therapy aimed at improving body image, Cougevan said. For students with more severe conditions, there is a team comprised of physicians, dietitians, psychiatrists and eating-disorder specialists.

Parents can do their part as well, Lombardi said, beginning well before the college years, and continuing after students have left home.

ÒFirst, do a self-assessment,Ó Lombardi said. ÒHow do I feel about my body and my relationship with food? Do I model balance? ThatÕs a very difficult thing to do. We all have friends and family members who make disparaging comments about weight and food, so I would encourage parents to take stock.Ó

Encourage active behavior without worrying about how many calories are burned, she said, and make sure food is balanced.

ÒKids need opportunities to have fun with food. Most parents wonÕt give their child chips with lunch every day, but donÕt give them rice cakes every day either.Ó

Once kids have left for college, she said, check in frequently Ñ and donÕt just ask about the academics, Lombardi said. Ask how students are doing socially and emotionally and see them in person as often as possible so you can see for yourself whether theyÕre healthy or not. If a friend or roommate expresses concern, she added, take it seriously.

ÒThis is not one of those illnesses you want to tiptoe around,Ó Lombardi explained.

For more information, contact the Summit program at 916) 920-5276 or visit http://www.sedop.org.

For services available at UCD, visit http://caps.ucdavis.edu/ed.

Ñ Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at (530) 747-8051 or [email protected] Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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