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Avoid health pitfalls during college years

By Bonnie Coblentz

MISSISSIPPI STATE – Many college freshmen enjoying their first taste of real freedom find themselves caught up in some habits they will struggle to overcome later.

The social opportunities of college combined with freedom from parental limits make being a freshman an exciting time. While some young adults handle the transition well, others living alone for the first time start eating poorly, do not get enough rest, and drink or smoke for the first time or to excess.

Jane Clary, health promotion specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said parents can positively impact how their grown children behave their first time out of the nest if they model good behavior and choices throughout their child's life.

“A parent's lifestyle often dictates how a young adult acts when they're on their own,” Clary said. “A parent cannot expect a young person to start exercising and eating right if they did not model that lifestyle at home.”

But even with good modeling, college students still can use some advice as they set out. Clary said the anticipated “Freshman 15” weight gain is not inevitable if young adults are careful.

“If you eat better, you'll feel better, concentrate better and do better in class,” Clary said. “If you consistently fail to get enough rest, you won't perform well, and this problem can be compounded by alcohol consumption.”

In addition to the dangers of alcohol consumption and the mental impairment it brings, alcohol is a high-calorie drink, as are the snacks that often accompany it.

“There are more calories per gram in alcohol than in carbohydrates or proteins. Mixed alcoholic drinks are high in calories, and some even contain fat,” Clary said.

In a college environment, many young people find themselves surrounded by others who are smoking and may feel the need to smoke to fit in. Clary praised Starkville and other towns that are smoke-free in public places, including restaurants and bars.

“Having a no-smoking policy helps kids who may feel pressured to be a social smoker,” Clary said. “Making the healthy decision now to not smoke means they won't have to shake a nicotine addiction one day.”

Sleep deprivation can be another pitfall for college students. With exams, class projects, studying, parties, video games and the Internet, many young adults find their responsibilities and leisure activities cut drastically into the night hours. Missing needed rest can bring problems.

“More freshmen come down with mononucleosis at the end of the semester than any other group,” Clary said. “This is true of those who have never had the sickness before, and it is often because their bodies are worn down by a lack of sleep and too much partying.”

Peggy Walker, an Extension nutrition and food safety agent in Panola County, said metabolism slows in people who do not get enough sleep.

“Fatigue sets in, you sleep late and are late for class, and since you don't have time for breakfast, you grab something, usually unhealthy, and eat it on the run,” Walker said. “When you're tired, you also usually don't exercise.”

One simple way to eat right is to stock good food options in the refrigerator and the kitchen cabinets.

“When you're hungry and looking for something to eat, you'll have healthy foods to choose from,” Walker said. “Be sure to keep water, fruit juices, baked chips, pretzels, fruits and vegetables on hand for healthy snacks and to keep your appetite in check.”

Staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water and eating a lot of fruits and vegetables also is good for the complexion, skin and hair.

“Think about the lifestyle you are creating, and don't choose temporary pleasures over long-term health,” Walker said.

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Released: July 13, 2006
Contact: Dr. Jane Clary, (662) 325-5014

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