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Fight the 'Freshman 15'

Seven steps to help your college kids avoid gaining weight

After a few months of school, college freshman typically come home with loads of laundry and requests for their favorite homemade foods. But it's just as common for them to return packing a few extra pounds – aka the "Freshman 15."

This extra weight often results from increased snacking, late-night eating and poor food choices. But the gain isn't restricted to year No. 1: Studies indicate many students grow heavier gradually during their college careers, which can create a pattern for years to come. Use the following seven tips to secure kids' healthy eating habits as they move farther from the family dinner table.

1. Buy a mini fridge. If your student has one in right his room, he's more likely to reach in there for a snack. Have him stock it with baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, string cheese, low-fat ranch dressing, hummus, fruit and water. Try deli turkey or chicken, too, or tuna-and-cracker kits for healthy, quick meal. To the side, stash a supply of microwave popcorn, pretzels, graham crackers and other low-calorie snacks. Sandwich bags are great for taking the grub on the run.

2. Avoid mindless eating. Urge your child not to eat and study at the same time. If her nose is in the books, she won't be as aware of what's going in her mouth. This can pack on mega calories. If, on occasion, she wants a snack while reading or on the computer, encourage her to choose a healthy snack (see above).

3. Early eating is better. A common bad habit is munching late at night – and it's usually stuff like pizza, subs, wings and cookies. Digestion slows in the evening, so it compounds the effects of those high-fat, high-calorie foods. Remind your student to avoid this, for the most part – and that eating a healthy breakfast, like peanut butter on a slice of whole-wheat bread and a piece of fruit, helps him eat more reasonably all day and ward off late-night cravings.

4. Be careful with "comfort." College dining halls offer many healthy and unhealthy choices. Problem is, when students get a little stressed or feel homesick, they turn to comfort foods – chicken nuggets, hamburgers, fries, etc. If your student wants a burger, switch the fries out for a salad with low-cal dressing. The next night, try baked chicken with the fries (watch the ketchup!). Then, opt for baked fish, steamed veggies and a milkshake. By spreading out the high-calorie culprits, kids don't totally deprive themselves of the foods they love.

5. Be wise about beverages. Most college students consume pop, sweet iced tea and juice (to say nothing of alcoholic beverages) – which are either low in nutrition, high in calories or both. Unless juice has 10 percent or more fruit juice, it's glorified sugar water. Plain ol' water is best, particularly with meals. If a craving hits mid-day or late at night, have sugared drinks sparingly, or go sugar-free. As a rule, opt for nutritional value (i.e., milk or fruit/vegetable juice).

6. Balance is key. Skipping meals to lose weight actually slows down metabolism. And although fruits and veggies are packed with nutrients and antioxidants, high-fat but meat-free snack foods qualify as "vegetarian" but can still pack a weight-gaining wallop. To boot, carb-restrictive diets can be problematic if they include too much higher-fat meat (bacon, burgers, steak). Before your child embarks on any restricted eating plan, be sure he or she gets advice from a dietician or doctor to maintain the right balance.

7. Walk it off. College campuses are great places to get exercise. Encourage your student to walk from class to class, work out in the gym, join an exercise class or participate in a sports activity. This will burn excess calories and improve her physical and mental health.

Above all, remember that balancing the scales is about more than maintaining an ideal weight; it's about optimum health. And that includes a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, controlled stress and the right amount of exercise.

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