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By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

Kendra Birtcher, 21, gained more than knowledge her freshman year at Arizona State University.

She packed on 15 pounds during her first semester by eating too much at the all-you-can-eat dining halls and indulging in late-night snacks such as pizza, sub sandwiches and burritos. She munched on gummy candy and chips and downed high-calorie energy drinks while she was studying. And she also consumed too many calories in alcoholic beverages, she says.

Birtcher went to the gym a couple of times a week but wasn't nearly as active as she was in high school when she played volleyball and ran track.

She weighed about 150 pounds when she started her freshman year and 165 by the end of the first semester. "I didn't realize what effect all this was having on me. It snuck up on me," says Birtcher, who is 5-foot-10.

College students who gained weight say they packed on an average of about 7½ to 9 pounds their freshman year and an average 10 to 14 pounds total during their college careers, according to one survey of university students. Another study found that students put on an average of 6½ pounds their freshman year and an average 10 pounds total during their college careers.

Some of the weight gain in college is due to continued growth and maturation, but a lot of it may be from changes in their eating habits, increases in the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially beer, and decreases in physical activity, research shows.

College is a big transition for students, and it's the first time most of them have been in charge of all their own food and beverage choices, says Joan Sarge Blake, a clinical associate professor in the nutrition program at Boston University. "They have a lot of stress, and unfortunately they turn to food. They may also not be getting enough sleep which also impacts how much they eat."

Fortunately, many college cafeterias offer a wide variety of healthful choices, Blake says. For instance, the dining halls at Boston University serve foods such as grilled vegetables, grilled chicken and pizza made with a whole-grain crust and topped with lots of vegetables, she says.

Still, students have to make the right food selections. "You can't go to the ice cream bar for dinner" every night and expect to maintain a healthy weight, she says.

About that alcohol

Alcoholic beverages, especially beer, contributes to weight gain, nutrition experts say.

Everywhere you turn someone is going out for drinks or inviting you to a party that has a keg, says Courtney Trent, 23, a junior at Arizona State. "Beer is always around."

After gaining 40 pounds her freshman year on fast food, alcoholic drinks and late-night snacks, Trent lost most of those extra pounds on Weight Watchers and now eats healthfully, exercises regularly and limits her alcohol consumption.

Melinda Johnson, a lecturer at Arizona State in Phoenix, recommends that those who drink alcoholic beverages have a glass of water between drinks. It helps lower the calorie intake and the risk of drinking too much.

Staying active

Some of the "weight creep" happens because students are less physically active than they were in high school, Johnson says. To avoid that, they should take advantage of recreation centers on campus, she says.

Birtcher, a senior majoring in health sciences who wants to become a physician's assistant, has done just that. She now weighs 152 pounds, down from 165.

She exercises at least five times a week, weight training and running three to five miles on the treadmill. She also plays club volleyball.

Because she lives in her own apartment now, she prepares her own meals so she knows what's going into the food.

She cut out gummy candy and "I don't crave it like I used to. If I do snack, I'll choose almonds and cranberries - something I can munch on but it's healthier and more filling with fiber."

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