Colleges promote healthy eating among students

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Worried about packing on the notorious freshmen 15 after all the late night snacking and take-out Chinese food? According to new reports, significant weight gain may be more of a serious health risk than you think.

Recent reports highlight a growing obesity problem among young adults. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every three Americans is overweight, with a growing percentage comprised of young people. The trend has become alarmingly common, and now 64 million Americans ages 20 or older meet the federal guidelines for metabolic syndrome.

The syndrome is comprised of a number of factors that make a person obese, including genetics and inactivity. Mexican Americans and African American women are especially prone. It also turns up in people who are not obese but have recently put on a lot of weight around their midsection. Untreated, the syndrome can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer.

Although the syndrome has not reached epidemic levels among college students, university health centers are not idling by without taking action to prevent obesity-related diseases.

Jeannie Skarka, the Assistant Director of Recreational Sports at the George Washington University, says that it is important for schools to make healthy eating a priority for students. Among other health awareness initiatives, the university holds an annual “Love your Body Week,” that includes a self esteem class and a five mile walk.

“For the first time students are adults on their own making decisions,” Skarka said. “We try to encourage students to see fitness and nutrition as part of their lifestyle, and not just a temporary goal.”

But Skarka adds that it is difficult to treat students that need help the most. Personal trainers, registered dieticians and nutritional staff members all work together to tackle the obesity problem head on.

“It’s definitely a challenge, for us to reach these students. There is a population that struggles with [obesity] and these are the ones we unfortunately do not to see as much because they tend to be embarrassed,” Skarka said.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville recruits peer educators to help combat obesity and promote healthy lifestyles. The educators are the same age as students, and are able to provide valuable nutrition advice to those seeking help.

“We like to call it motivational interviewing,” interim Health Promotions director Alison Beaver said. “We talk to students about the choices they are making and what they would like to change. We are then able to refer them to a counselor or doctor.”

Beaver believes the 18-22 demographic is a crucial age to develop and maintain healthy habits. Long school and work hours as well as an irregular sleeping schedule and limited finances may establish long-term unhealthy eating patterns. Alcohol consumption and overeating can also be to blame.

“This is the time where they are learning lifelong behaviors. At the same time, it’s also a time to experiment with the foods they like and dislike,” Beaver said. “What we hear from students is that it’s really hard to start college after they are used to their parents or someone cooking dinner. All of a sudden students are eating in dining hall in an all you can eat environment where they are inundated with food choices.”

To help students avoid excessive weight gain, Beaver and her colleagues remind students that combating obesity involves not only healthy eating, but routine exercise as well.

“We urge students to integrate physical activity into everyday life,” Beaver said. “When we talk about exercise, people automatically think of being on a treadmill or going for a run. But we should think about being more physically active during the day with things like taking the stairs instead of using the elevator.”

Beaver says that small changes like these will go a long way to prevent serious health problems later in life.

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