It comes up in every "going to college" conversation: the freshman 15. The 15 pounds every college freshman is expected to gain during the first year of studies and then struggle to drop for the rest of their life. Is it really this way? Does it have to be?
Well, 1) maybe and 2) no, definitely not.
The “Freshman 15” is a generalization, and individual experiences can vary widely. Some students may gain only a few pounds, while others may even lose weight during their freshman year. College can be a time of life where healthy habits can enhance academic success and also help establish lasting lifestyle patterns for adulthood.
Here are some thoughts about the freshman 15 and how to make it a myth for students.
It turns out the freshman 15 is really the freshman 5
On average, most freshmen gain 3-5 pounds during the first year of college. Still, on average means that some freshmen likely gain 15 or more pounds. Both men and women experience weight gain during this time period.
Alcohol is a common culprit
The extra calories from partying can add up. Even two beers every Friday night can add up to one pound of weight gain per month. This is a quick 9- to 10-pound weight gain over the school year.
Other liquid calories can also add up quickly
Similar to alcohol, beverages like soda or that delicious latte you drink in the morning on the way to class—which can contain as much as 10 to 25 teaspoons of sugar—can result in an extra 150 to 300+ calories per day. This translates to more than 4,000 to 8,000 calories per month and more than 50,000 calories annually—equivalent to more than 15 pounds of weight gain each year.
Too many choices = too much to eat
Freshmen often live in the dorms and have access to a variety of cafeterias across campus. When faced with many food choices, people eat more. Sure, there are a lot of healthy choices available, but it is easy to drift towards pizza and burgers because they are familiar comfort foods.
Additionally, many food outlets provide unlimited access to soda fountains, soft ice cream or yogurt, and sugar-rich cereals. It is easy to indulge in foods and beverages that were not in the fridge at home while you were in high school.
“Also, our bodies’ crave sweets and high caloric foods during times of stress and fatigue as this gives us a temporary dopamine/energy hit, making us feel better at the moment,” says Juliana Simonetti, MD, co-director of the Weight Management Program at University of Utah Health. “Unfortunately, this sensation does not last, leading to a sugar crash and the desire to eat more sweets and caloric foods. Ultimately. it becomes a vicious cycle.”
There are no parents around to mention that you may want a vegetable or salad with your meal or family members to eat with for scheduled meals. That sounds good, but structure is a key element to healthy nutrition. Freshmen often have a year of hedonistic, free-for-all behaviors or get into bad sleep and eating patterns due to all-night studying.
Irregular sleep patterns and not enough sleep can cause changes in hormonal balance, leading to increase in appetite and changes in metabolism, contributing to weight gain. Some of the studies suggest that less than six hours of sleep per night can lead to as much as one pound of weight gain per week.
Stress and socializing
Food can be a comforting way to stuff one's feelings. Eating is a common way to cope with stress, boredom, or insecurity. Eating is also something to do when hanging out with new friends and enjoying new surroundings. Be sure to develop several ways to cope with stress that don't involve food.
Social normalization theory
Research suggests that the freshman fifteen is now a "social norm," meaning it is socially expected and accepted by students and their families. While it is not the end of the world to gain weight as a freshman, it doesn't have to be that way. Let's put an end to this social norm.