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Eating Mindfully to Avoid the Freshman 15

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Mindful eating can help college students resist indulging in late night pizza when they aren’t truly hungry.
Mindful eating can help college students resist indulging in late night pizza when they aren’t truly hungry.

It’s back to school time and a whole new group of students will leave home for the first time as they enter their freshman year in college. No doubt those students are well aware of the “freshman 15”—the legendary weight many students gain their first year of college.

And while the obvious tips to avoiding the freshman 15 call for eating healthful foods and getting regular exercise, there is another strategy the class of 2017 can employ to attempt to ward off extra pounds: mindful eating.

What Is “Mindful Eating”?

While mindful eating is getting a lot of attention these days as a health catch phrase, it is not new says Vanessa King, who teaches nutrition at American University in Washington, D.C.  

“Mindful living is a precept of Eastern philosophic systems that have been followed for over 1000 years. Mindful eating enlists our awareness of internal physiological cues—aligning with intelligence of body—to manage portions and calories,” King said. “Dieting focuses on WHAT you eat while mindful eating focuses on HOW you eat. Mindful eating is the component of dieting that makes it work for the short-term. When you’re on a diet, you pause before each meal or snack and ask yourself, ‘should I eat this?’ Pausing and tuning in is mindfulness.” 

Tune in to Not Gain Weight

Unlike dieting, mindful eating doesn’t require calorie or portion measurements and doesn’t label some foods as “bad” and others as “good.” Rather, mindful eating means a person is aware of the reasons he or she is eating. King says that before eating a portion of food, a person should think about why he or she is about to eat it.

“Mindfulness has an internal focus on self-awareness while dieting is quite external,” King said. “Are you really actually hungry and in need of nourishment, or is something else going on? Are you eating because you are bored and the food is there or in a social situation in which everyone else is eating? Are you eating while distracted, such as while watching TV, driving, or reading a book?”

King also advises taking the desired portion putting the rest of the food away. If food is hanging around, even if the person is not hungry, he or she will likely eat it. By the same token, healthful foods should be kept visible so that they will be eaten.  
Freshman Food for Thought

In regards to how mindful eating can help college freshmen avoid the freshman 15, King says a regular eating schedule—something most college students do not prioritize—is key to resisting a slice of pizza or three when the girls and guys down the hall place an order for a late night snack.

“We tend to eat mindlessly when we skip meals and then overeat when the pizza shows up,” King said. “Our brains and bodies need food for optimum performance, so it’s best to figure out what works for you, whether that’s three meals a day or six small meals a day, when during the day you need those meals and follow that schedule. Then you can hang out and have a social bite of pizza, or skip the pizza but stay for social time.”

As for stressful times when college students may be especially vulnerable to mindless eating, such as final exam time, King says sticking to a daily eating schedule is especially important.

“Beware of the ‘hangry’ (hungry + angry) and ‘psychoglycemic’ (low blood sugar outbursts) states brought on by stress and meal skipping,” King said. “As pressed as you may be for time, take a break to eat and enjoy your food.”

More Mindful Eating Practices

King also advises that college students consider how certain foods make them feel after they eat them, or how fast they eat, as well as track what they eat.

“Tracking what you eat is the best tool for weight management,” King said. “If you don't want to keep a notebook, try using an app on your smartphone or take pics of your food and record at the end of each day. Beyond that, try to plan your meals. Know what's offered around you and plan accordingly for balance.”

And for those inevitable occasions when someone may overindulge and regret it the next day?

“Part of the practice [of mindful eating] is non-judgmental—that means no ‘shoulding’ on yourself, “King said. “It's okay if you overeat or miss a health goal. Mindful eating invites you to avoid stress around eating by making note of a less than ideal eating episode, accepting it, and moving forward with a plan for how you'll respond to a similar situation in the future.”

Of course, getting enough sleep and physical activity can only help.  

“There's new, fascinating research about when we eat and how it affects our productivity and weight,” King said. “Mindful eating is definitely about connecting with your body and physical activity helps that. Especially when you come to college and have so many stationary hours when you are studying, reading, or attending a lecture.”