DURHAM, N.C. – Sunny Dawson ran two miles every other day when she started her freshman year at the University of Southern California. But the lure of the cafeteria near her dorm became too much to resist.
"Everyone I know went crazy, 'Oh my God, pizza. Oh my God, ice cream,"' she said. Dawson soon stopped running and "started piling up the food in the cafeteria."
By Christmas break, the 5-foot-10 native of Haleiwa, Hawaii, had gained 10 pounds.
"I realized I don't have to be a victim of this and started making better choices," she said. "I ate a lot of salads and cut out sodas altogether. By spring break I was normal again. I was stoked."
As high school graduates start college this month and next, universities are offering a range of tools to help them avoid Dawson's mistake. While experts say the so-called "Freshman 15" is usually only 5 to 7 pounds, it's a common experience for many college newcomers faced with unlimited cafeteria food, late-night pizza binges and snacking that comes with irregular student schedules.
"The patterns and the habits that students get into in the first two to three months of school is what tends to carry them through the rest of their time on campus," said Jen Ketterly, nutrition and fitness coordinator for campus health services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At nearby Duke University, the private college of about 6,000 undergraduates offers an interactive nutrition workshop for freshmen with eating problems. It includes tips for quick, healthy meals in the dorm, and how to eat the right way in an all-you-can eat dining hall.
"A lot of kids really don't have a clue of what they're not supposed to eat and what constitutes a healthy diet," says Jenny Favret, the nutrition manager at Duke's Eating Disorders Program.
The problem isn't always weight gain: Some new students lose weight because they're no longer getting three meals a day from Mom and Dad.
"Often times students have a very difficult schedule. They don't have enough time to eat (properly) so they eat a lot of snacks," said Joshua Solano, 20, of Florida, who'll be a junior at Duke this year. "I actually lost a little weight from my irregular eating habits."
Campus cafeterias have improved their menus over the years and now offer more healthy choices, such as salad bars, said Kim Dude, director of the Wellness Resource Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"Then the issue is how to educate students on how to make the right choice," she said. At Missouri, students are trained to make presentations to their peers at residence halls, fraternities and sororities on eating healthy, handling stress, exercising and generally leading a healthy lifestyle, she said.
Social pressures also often intensify at college, where students have more opportunity to compare themselves with each other because they spend so much time together, officials at several schools said. The super-fit bodies that saturate TV shows and commercials can exacerbate such problems.
At Southern Cal, there are seminars for freshmen taught by USC professors that deal with messages that can lead to damaging self-images. One such class — "Impossible Bodies: Plastic Surgery as a New Social Problem" — explores the relationship between viewing plastic surgery reality shows to dissatisfaction over a particular body part.
Dawson, a 19-year-old business major entering her sophomore year, will lead a program for about 65 of her fellow dorm residents — mostly freshmen — on making healthy living choices. It will include exercising together and tips on healthy eating, she said.
"A lot of freshmen," she said, "just don't know what they're getting into right now."