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New to Vegas? There’s a reason your clothes are a little tighter

Paid the security deposit and the first month’s rent. Took care of things down at the DMV. Found a few candidates for your soon-to-be-favorite coffeehouse and bar.

Welcome to Las Vegas. All that’s left is to check off the final item on your newcomer’s to-do list: Wait for the Vegas 15 to arrive.

The Vegas 15. Second cousin to the Freshman 15 and a depressingly accurate description for the extra pounds many newcomers gain after moving to the land of fine food, 24/7 coffee shops and ubiquitous buffets. And while you won’t find it in the scientific literature, many longtimers can remember all too well the physique-changing effects moving to Las Vegas wrought.

“I gained weight the first couple of months I was here,” recalls Damon McCune, who moved from Michigan to Las Vegas in 2004 and now is a dietitian and director of the didactic program in nutrition at UNLV.

“I want to say it was fairly substantial,” he adds, and its arrival was a shock.

“It was about 20 pounds,” McCune says, “and that was because I was trying everything.

“I think that happens to a lot of people. We have world-class food at every price point. But, for me, personally, I just loved food and wanted to try all of the new things.”

Dr. Jeffrey Ng, a Southern Nevada family practice physician, is wary of turning anecdotes into a syndrome. But he, too, has noticed that patients of recent Las Vegas vintage often do put on a few pounds three to six months after their arrival.

“I have patients who come in for a lot of weight issues,” Ng says. “I would say roughly 30 percent of my visits are directly (related to) weight. A lot of it is contributing to (high) blood pressure and diabetes, and usually a lot of joint pain and back pain, just because of the extra weight.”

“So, I probably focus a lot on weight loss and nutrition,” he says, and through proper nutrition, physical activity and weight loss, “I can probably eliminate a lot of medications doctors normally give.”

“We hear everything when it comes to what brought people in,” says Heather Avila, a leader and chief operating officer of Weight Watchers of Las Vegas.

“A common struggle we hear is people frequenting buffets. That can be either a challenge on how to navigate them or, what we hear once people start living on a program, is how easy navigating a buffet is.”

Granted, it’s not like new Las Vegans are the only diners who overindulge. McCune says statistical studies generally place Nevada in the middle of the pack in state-by-state comparisons of obesity rates.

And moving to any new city can be stressful, which can trigger overeating. For any newcomer, Avila says, the challenge would lie in “not knowing how to navigate our valley best to find those healthy (dining) choices.”

Still, Las Vegas newcomers also face a few temptations newcomers to Des Moines or Omaha don’t. For example, while newcomers everywhere are apt to incorporate food — church suppers, going out to dinner, inviting neighbors over for coffee — as a means of making friends and becoming familiar with their new homes, few cities have the sheer glut of always-open food purveyors found in Las Vegas.

Also, McCune says, here, “the places don’t close, so I can stay there and potentially consume more.

“Vegas is a 24-hour town, which is great. But it can cause some pitfalls. You can eat whatever you feel like, and whatever kind of food you want at 4 a.m., there’s a chance (a restaurant) is open. The same thing with alcohol. We don’t stop selling it, and there are a lot of empty calories in alcohol.”

“I used to work in Connecticut, and restaurants all closed at 9 o’clock, so if you don’t eat by 9 o’clock, there’s not much for you to eat,” Ng says. “Here in Las Vegas, you can go to Chinatown, you can go on the Strip, you can go to Red Rock casino and there’s something open.”

Southern Nevadans’ work schedules also can play havoc with healthy dining routines.

“A lot of times, people tell me, ‘I don’t have time to cook, so I go out to eat a lot,’ ” Ng says. “A lot of people are busy at their jobs and they don’t have time to sit down and have family meals.”

Ng says it’s common for patients to have insomnia and sleep apnea, both of which can be related to weight gain, and “I have to train my patients and say, ‘OK, if you’ve got to move from swing to graveyard, you’ve gotta eat differently.’ ”

Yet, Avila says, “we have seen that even shift workers can maintain healthy weight in regard to what time they eat.”

Las Vegas’ summer heat can be a problem, too, “especially for people who are moving here from other areas and aren’t used to the heat,” Avila says. “It’s a challenge for them to find a time of day they can get physical activity in the outdoors.”

Another potential problem: Newcomers to Las Vegas may embrace for a bit too long a tourist’s mentality that can make overindulgence routine.

“New folks come in, and all of a sudden it’s like you’re in Adventureland and you’re like a kid in the candy store, and you’ve got all of the stuff that you’re going out and trying,” says Tom Rosenberger, chairman of the hospitality management program at the College of Southern Nevada. “For the first few months, everybody overdoes it when they come to Las Vegas.”

“I was in Kansas City for two weeks and we went out and tried all of the places, and I put on five pounds, easy,” he adds. But Rosenberger was able to come back home and drop those pounds, while newcomers to Las Vegas already are home. So, careless newcomers easily can hang on to those new pounds for a long time.

“I have friends here who have great restaurants that I stay away from on a regular basis,” Rosenberger jokes. “No. 1, I can’t afford it, and No. 2, I can’t do that regularly.”

But, looking at things from a wineglass-half-full perspective, McCune says Las Vegas also probably has a “higher availability of, quote, healthier options when eating out.”

Attribute that, in part, to the comparatively large number of entertainment industry workers here — from performers in shows on the Strip to nightclub hostesses and models — for whom keeping slim is a job requirement, McCune says.

Similarly, every buffet and coffee shop in town is apt to have more nutritious items on its menu, as well as the caloric favorites.

“We, as dietitians, really try to emphasize there are no bad foods, and there truly is a way to incorporate any food into a healthy diet,” McCune says. “So even if you go through the drive-through, it doesn’t mean you can’t order something that’s, quote, healthy.”

Also on the upside, Las Vegans enjoy easy access to prime outdoor recreational venues ranging from city and county parks to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Mount Charleston, “so you can be very active here,” McCune says.

And, unlike many other cities, “one of the things Las Vegas has is 24-hour access to fitness facilities,” McCune says.

For newcomers and longtimers alike, keeping the Vegas 15 at bay requires making smart food choices, watching the size of portions and maintaining physical activity. McCune says such strategies as walking the length of a buffet before filling your plate also can help, as well as remembering that “just because it’s all you can eat doesn’t mean you need to eat all you can.”

In the end, McCune says, remember that “you’re not a tourist anymore.”

Read more from John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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