ASHIL ANN, A SOPHOMORE at the University of California at Santa Barbara, went to college to stretch her mind--she didn't expect it also to expand her waistline. "At home my mom made choices on what I could eat," she explains, "but it was all-you-can-eat at the dining halls." Ashil got to school a year ago as a featherweight size 1. She now fits "snugly" into a size 3, she says. Say hello to the "freshman 15": the unwanted pounds many students pack on during their first year of college. The extra pounds--usually the result of junk-food vending machines, binge drinking, buffet-style dining and the loss of culinary parental guidance--have become for many an expected part of the college experience.
But in recent years, colleges across the country have begun working to challenge that longstanding tradition, revamping dining-hall menus and introducing classes on weight loss to combat unnecessary frosh noshing. At UC Santa Barbara, for instance, biology professor Diane Eardley introduced a freshman seminar called You Are What You Eat after observing what she calls a "second-year metamorphosis" among students. "The girls would come in gorgeous and come back 30 pounds heavier," explains Eardley, whose course is fully enrolled, with 10 students on the waiting list.
Brandy Shih's crusade against freshman weight gain is more personal. The University of Texas alum remembers "gaining 15 and then some" before she graduated in 1998. Now, as one of the school's nutritionists, she greets students with her Avoid the Freshman 15 brochure (which includes nutritional information) and also holds workshops. The dining-hall menu doesn't always support her efforts. "Our chicken fingers are the No. 1-- selling item," she says. "If we take those away, we may cause a riot."
At Syracuse University, Julia Salomon uses a diplomatic approach: the school nutritionist has lobbied for healthy yet appealing options at the dining halls: "Our salad bar isn't just lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes anymore," says Salomon. "It's black beans and garbanzo beans. It's hummus and grilled chicken bits."
Some nutritionists believe the freshman-15 concept is overblown. University of Southern California's Patrice Barber runs a workshop entitled Freshman 15--Don't Believe the Hype, in which students are taught not to succumb to the feelings of insecurity that may accompany weight gain. As for Ashil Ann, she now believes gaining a few pounds is O.K. "Although I'm returning to my ideal weight, I don't mind the extra pounds," Ann says. "I actually feel more confident with my new body."