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Dietary habits pose ongoing struggle

Katie Perry | Monday, February 21, 2005

Although the “freshman 15” is notorious for causing first-year college students across the nation to gain unwanted pounds, there may be other repercussions to the phenomenon that spur an unsafe hyperconsciousness of nutrition and exercise.Freshman 15Living in a college setting, combined with the pressures of managing demanding classes and the somewhat unlimited availability of food on campus, can often lead to quick weight gain during a student’s first year at a university. Over time, freshmen may begin to see the effects of these factors in the form of “the freshman 15.”Notre Dame manager of nutrition and safety Jocie Antonelli said the root of the freshman 15 is hardly mysterious.”It is generally easy to understand the causes,” Antonelli said. “I think it boils down to three things – students eating late at night, alcohol consumption and excitement at the initial array of [food] options available.”Despite media attention given to the freshman 15 via outlets like Internet health Web sites like WebMD.com, broadcast news channels like CNN and magazine publications like Newsweek, incoming freshmen may not worry about weight gain a great deal prior to arriving on campus.”I think that people definitely know about the freshman 15 and most people hope not to gain an extra 15 pounds their freshman year, but I don’t think it’s one of the primary concerns for a new freshman,” freshman Kimmy Tavarez said.Though students may not show signs of apprehension before embarking on their first semester at college, the issue is brought to the forefront upon arrival to campus. A Dec. 1 NDToday.com survey asked current students if they felt the effects of the freshman 15 – 45 percent of the responses were a “yes.” “The concept of the freshman 15 exists here just the same as it exists on every college campus,” Antonelli said. Freshman Regina Gesicki agrees that a freshman year weight gain is not exclusive to Notre Dame.”I think the freshman 15 is an issue anywhere,” Gesicki said. “Grappling with weight gain is almost inevitable when one is introduced to a completely new environment, routine or group of people.”But while weight gain is something that remains salient on the minds of freshmen, the majority of students do not allow it to consume their lives.”Most people want to be healthy and in shape, especially when breaks roll around, but the freshman 15 doesn’t seem to make most people really weight-obsessed as far as I can tell,” Tavarez said.Disordered eatingWhile social and educational pressures may subject some students to the freshman 15, others are able to adjust to the collegiate lifestyle and alter their nutrition and exercise regimes accordingly.”ND is very health-conscious, however sometimes I feel students become obsessed with eating healthy and exercising,” Gesicki said.The Notre Dame community tends to embrace its athletic nature – 75 percent of this year’s freshman class participated in a varsity athletic sport. Indeed, a much smaller proportion of these students continue playing at this level for Notre Dame. The displacement of an athletic source presents incoming freshman with a struggle to become more self-motivated in regards to diet and exercise.”I was used to being forced to exercise because of sports in high school, and it’s tough to make myself get out and run or something here, so I joined Bengal Bouts,” freshman J.J. Rees said.But to junior Ian Grant, the problem of athletic readjustment may have a serious health-related consequence.”Some people get to college and stop being active; others manage to stay in shape,” Grant said. “If anything, the only problem I could see would be overcompensation for a little weight gain, resulting in compulsive exercising.”Grant, too, sees a danger in Notre Dame’s pervasive athleticism.”Compulsive exercising seems to be more of a problem than unhealthy eating,” Grant said. “I don’t think there are too many places one could find where a knife fight is more likely to break out over a elliptical machine than at a party.”According to Gesicki, the struggle of some students to evade the freshman 15 translates into a unhealthy fear of weight gain, which may lead to disordered eating habits.Gesicki cited the competitive mindset of students as an underlying cause for eating disorders at Notre Dame.”The population is a group of high-achieving, in-control students and I feel the pressure that comes from competing academically can definitely transfer into competing in the dining hall and at the gym,” Gesicki said.According to a 2004 study conducted by Students Against Destructive Decisions, up to 4 percent of all female college students nationwide suffer from eating disorders in the face of mounting pressures, like a developed phobia of weight gain. Consequently, the University provides students with specialized resources to help counsel, assist and treat students who struggle with unhealthy eating patterns.Notre Dame eating disorder specialist Valerie Staples provides individual and group counseling for these students. “The goals of counseling are to assist a client to stabilize [his] eating patterns, confront fears about food and weight, challenge cognitions, develop a healthier body image and to explore underlying issues that drive [his] behaviors,” Staples said. “These could include self esteem, identity, relationships [and/or] expression of feelings.”University resourcesIn order to help students cope with the necessary nutritional adjustments of college life, the University provides a comprehensive network of tools and resources to assist students in making healthy choices regarding diet and exercise.As part of the mandatory first-year physical education requirement, all freshmen are required to complete two rotations of Contemporary Topics for College Students. The main goal of the course, as outlined by the physical education department’s Web site, is “to aid the student in transition from high school to university life issues.” Although the course covers material ranging from time management to substance abuse, the majority of class periods involve some form of instruction on healthy eating habits. In one sample schedule, this subject was covered in five of 18 meetings.Among the topics taught in these nutrition-based sessions were determining appropriate portion size, establishing healthy diet and exercise regimes and eluding eating disorders. Students may also see Antonelli should their nutritional concerns go beyond those emphasized in the Physical Education requirement. Aside from maintaining nutritional programs, attending administrative meetings to address nutritional trends and ensuring food safety, Antonelli works closely with students to provide dietary insight.”My daily schedule is usually driven by appointments with students, nutritionally analyzing an individual’s dietary records and compiling suggestions to help them achieve their personal health goals,” Antonelli said.Antonelli is also available to lead customized talks for residence halls or campus groups on a variety of topics, including the freshman 15, vegetarianism and eating disorders, according to the Notre Dame Food Services Web site.Keeping campus healthyBetween mandatory health courses, nutritional information made available by food services and diet and eating disorder counselors on-hand, the University has mounted a multi-faceted defense against poor eating habits which has proven sufficient for some students.”Contemporary Topics is really helpful in learning what you need to stay healthy and be able to exercise regularly,” freshman Anita Lyons said. “I haven’t really had any experience with the dieticians but I think that the enormous range of healthy options the dining hall offers allow everyone to eat well no matter what they like.”Others, however, think the University can do more.”I think the University should sponsor some speakers or expand educational programs like Contemporary Topics to deal more with disordered eating and make people understand that it is not healthy,” Gesicki said.To help reinforce concepts of healthy eating habits and call attention to the issue of disordered eating, student government is sponsoring a series of events that span throughout this week. Jessica Weiner, author of the book “Hungry Girl,” will speak Wednesday and discuss how she has helped thousands of people cope with issues of self-esteem that have the potential to spur eating disorders.According to Grant, no matter how many tools and resources are provided, the day-to-day responsibility of nutrition will ultimately remain in the hands of the students.”People will eat what they want,” Grant said. “If we don’t know by now what’s generally good and what’s generally bad for us, then we have other problems.”