One of the most common fears that we hear from incoming college freshmen is about gaining the dreaded “Freshman 15.” The Freshman 15 refers to the myth that college freshmen will gain 15 pounds during their first year at school. It has become one of those terms that Americans toss about in conversation as if it is a proven fact, an inevitable reality. There is certainly a flurry of articles written about it at the start of each academic year, dutifully outlining tips to avoid weight gain. But is the Freshman 15 something that really happens? Could the added anxiety and efforts around trying to prevent the anticipated weight gain actually make things worse?
It doesn’t take more than a simple literature review to determine that the Freshman 15 is, in fact, a myth. Two specific studies found that freshmen did tend to gain some weight during the first year of college, but it was closer to a total of 2-5 pounds, which is significantly less than the rumored 15. (1,3). So where did the exaggerated myth come from, and why do the studies show that there is even a slight weight increase?
For most students entering their freshman year at college, it is the first time that they are living away from home and making independent lifestyle choices. While this can be very freeing (no more curfews!), it can also be overwhelming in terms of managing a well-balanced, nutritious day of eating and hydrating in the midst of other academic and social obligations. This can lead to problems with weight gain or weight loss, both of which can be indicative of behavior changes or health concerns. Let’s look at some common causes for weight changes and problematic eating on a college campus:
Erratic Schedules: High school provided a very structured day, with bells nicely ringing at the beginning and end of every period. In college, you often have different schedules on different days, which can make it hard to find a consistent meal time. This may lead to an increase in the number of times you wait too long between meals or even skip one. Skipping meals deprives your body of nutrients and can ultimately lead to over-eating at the next meal, which can also lead to weight gain.
Dining Halls: Many schools have buffet style cafeterias. The good news is that this provides plenty of choices for you at each meal. The bad news is that many people struggle to recognize what an appropriate portion size is and may lose touch with their internal hunger and satiety cues. Some students, especially those who buy into the Freshman 15 myth, may feel anxious about their food choices and will compensate by taking too little food. Others may have difficulty adjusting to the abundance of food in the college cafeteria and might repeatedly overeat and feel uncomfortably full after meals.
Dieting: Sometimes people are so afraid that they will gain weight in college that they start dieting before the school year even starts. In reality, dieting has actually been shown to be a predictor of weight gain (2). Restrictive eating can eventually lead to over-eating, as well as problems with your metabolism, which can also lead to weight gain. In fact, 95-98% of people who go on a diet gain back all of their weight (or more) within 1-5 years.
Poor Sleep: Many college students don’t get a full 8 hours of sleep each night. Fatigue can impact mood, hormone levels, fullness/satiety cues and can lead to impulsive choices when eating, which can all affect your weight.
Alcohol: Remember that you can choose not to drink and still have an enjoyable and memorable college experience. However, if you make the choice to consume alcohol, moderation really is the key to responsible drinking. In addition to some of the obvious risks associated with drinking, individuals who are anxious about weight may restrict their food intake to try to compensate for the calories consumed via alcohol. This ill-advised strategy deprives the body of the essential nutrients that must be obtained to fuel the body. Before you protest and say that a multivitamin can fix that, know that your body best consumes those nutrients if they come from actual food in regular intervals throughout the day. Multivitamins should only be considered as a supplement to your food and not ever as a substitute for proper dietary intake. Restricting food in an attempt to compensate for binge drinking calories has been referred to by some internet outlets as “drunkorexia”. Trendy terms like this can be dangerous since they often downplay or trivialize the serious underlying problems of eating disorders and substance abuse.
Age: Have you ever stopped to notice that most adults look pretty different from high school students? Your body continues to develop and mature even after puberty. While the bulk of that maturation may have already happened during your early to mid-teens, expect your body to continue to change. This may mean that it is completely natural to gain a couple of pounds, even if your diet and exercise patterns remain stable throughout college. It is unrealistic to expect your weight and body to stay exactly the same as they were when you were in high school.
Tips for College Wellness:
- Eat three meals every day, even if you are very busy and have to take the food with you to eat in class.
- Eat mindfully. Try to follow your body’s cues; eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full. This can be particularly hard given tip #1 above, but even if its not ideal to eat amidst distractions like a class lecture, a sorority meeting, or your fantasy football draft, its still possible to check in with your body’s hunger and fullness cues during those times and respond appropriately.
- Don’t forget to hydrate yourself throughout the day. Don’t think water is a big deal? Consider that every single system in your body depends on water so if you you don’t get enough, vital organs and systems can’t function properly. Keep a water bottle attached to your school bag to make it easy to hydrate and so you have a constant reminder to get in your eight, 8-oz glasses of water each day. Student athletes may need even more than this.
- Resist the pressure to go on a diet (even if all your roommates are doing it). Instead, make an effort to eat a wide variety of foods in moderation. Don’t forget to eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins, fats/oils and dairy. Take the focus off your weight altogether by not weighing yourself. Evaluate your well-being based on how you feel physically and emotionally, your energy levels and your health behaviors.
- Try going Fat Talk Free
- Avoid focusing too much on your body or your weight by redefining “Freshman 15” in your own way. Make a list of 15 activities or experiences that you would like to try before the end of the school year. Then find ways to commit to doing them. Too often, people reflect on their college years and only remember a blur of studying, stress and concern about their weight/bodies. Redefining your own meaningful list of Freshman 15 is a great way to ensure that you truly enjoy the college experience.
If you have other suggestions or ways to focus on your own wellness amidst the Freshman 15 fears on campus, please leave a comment below or join in the conversation on our facebook page. If you are concerned that you or a friend may have an eating disorder, you can take our confidential, online assessment quiz.
For more inforamtion about The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, visit www.eatingdisorder.org or call us at (410) 938-5252.
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1. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “Fabled ‘Freshman 15’ Pound Gain More Often Only 5, Report Researchers.” ScienceDaily, 7 Apr. 2008. Web. 22 Aug. 2011. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080406153357.htm)
2. Lowe, M., et al. (2006) Multiple types of dieting prospectively predict weight gain during the freshman year of college. Appetite 47, 83-90.
Originally published September 21, 2011
3. Mihalopoulos NL, Auinger P, Klein JD. (March/April 2008) The Freshman 15: Is it Real? Journal of American College Health, 56(5), 531-534.
Written by Jennifer Moran, PsyD
Originally published 9/21/11
Photo Credit: freedigitalphotos.net / imagerymajestic