Avoiding the Freshman 15: Weight Gain in College is Not a Given

When we talk about back to school time, it’s not just the little ones to consider. How about the ‘kids’ who are going off to college?

In addition to all that leaving home to begin the university experience has to offer; independence, soul searching and personal growth, there’s another factor that comes into play: the fitness, nutrition and wellness habits that may or may not have come from a place of good health and good intention… or the exact opposite.

It’s as though we’ve come to assume that it’s a given that when young adults leave home for college, they’ll automatically gain weight, thus the ‘Freshman 15’, an expression commonly used in the United States and Canada that refers to an amount (somewhat arbitrarily set at 15 pounds, and originally just 10) of weight gained during a student’s first year at college[1].

And while it’s a myth that it must occur, unfortunately, it’s not a myth that it is occurring. A new study shows that nearly one in four freshmen gain at least 5% of their body weight, an average of about 10 pounds, during their first semester[2].

Why does this happen?

Many freshmen are living away from home for the first time, and this can stir up unpredictable emotions. “Emotions play a huge role in weight gain,” says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Kristi King, MPH, RDN, CNSC, LD[3]. “Stress, anxiety and homesickness can all lead to overeating.”

The all-you-can-eat dining facilities at college and the feeling of being free from supervision in the case when students come from a background of being overly guarded in terms of what they ate can also contribute to the number on the scale beginning to tip upward.

Finally, the obvious: drinking, drinking and more drinking. Aside from the calories being poured down one’s throat, there’s the overeating that comes along with it, often from the most unhealthy types of food, in large quantities, at the least appropriate time to eat: in the middle of the night right before passing out.

One college student Arizona State interviewed for an article published in USA Today[4] shared her story; she’d gained 40 pounds in the nine months that made up her freshman year eating fast food, alcoholic drinks and late-night snacks.

She commented, “everywhere you turn someone is going out for drinks or inviting you to a party that has a keg. Beer is always around.”

While this particular student reported beginning a healthy eating and exercise plan to achieve a an ideal bodyweight again, for those who don’t make these proactive decisions in a timely manner, the long term consequences are frightening.

It may seem like no big deal to put on a few pounds here or there, or even as much as ten or fifteen in a year, but if a change isn’t implemented, obesity looms down the path if the current trajectory continues.

A study published on the US National Library of Medicine’s Website[5] suggests that the weight gain seen in college freshmen (175 g/month) is nearly 6 times that reported for the general population (about 32 g/month).

Further, for the more than 50% of students who gained weight (about 7 lbs), the average was nearly 425 g/month (11.22 lbs/y). If such a rate were sustained for several years, many of the students would become obese (BMI ≥ 30).

If that’s not a wake up call screaming in your ear, I don’t know what else is!
            And the longer one stays overweight, or becomes obese, the harder it will be to take the weight off, due to a series of physical and chemical changes that the body undergoes.

So rather than ever getting there in the first place, why not leave home and head for college with health first and foremost as a top priority, right along with maintaining a high GPA?

Parents of college aged students and students themselves can both take advantage of the last few weeks of summer, even at this late stage in the game with the start of fall semester just weeks away, to research, plan and develop strategies for staying in shape away from home.

  • Sort out what exercise options will be at school. College gym or pool? Nearby Soul Cycle Classes?   Boot camp? Whatever floats your boat- just find out a way to move and plan it into your schedule from the get go.
  • What are the dining options? The ‘all you can eat pass’ for the cafeteria may be economical, but the healthy options tend to be very limited at best. Look into CSA delivery, farmer’s markets, and fresh food delivery if possible and if not, create a budget (including the cost of a small fridge that can fit into a dorm) to allow for fresh veggies, raw nuts and even natural jerkies for in a pinch proteins.
  • Finally, care packages sent from home can be instrumental in keeping the diet from going south. I worked for years with a client in the military stationed in Kabul and her family did just that- she’d receive tuna and salmon packs, raw nuts, coconut oil and protein powders. Fresh and natural it was not, yet it was still leaps and bounds ahead of the only fast-food options offered on base.

The key thing to take away is that it doesn’t have to be fact that freshman must gain weight, nor must they carry on packing on the pounds year after year.

Take control from the get go, put a plan in place and create a situation where dealing with having to lose weight is a non issue, since none was put on in the first place!

[1] Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web

[2] “Freshman 15: College Weight Gain Is Real.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015

[3] “8 Ways to Beat the Freshman 15.” Www.eatright.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015

[4] “Drinking, Overeating Pack on Pounds in College.” USATODAY.COM. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015

[5] Mihalopoulos, Nicole L., Peggy Auinger, and Jonathan D. Klein. “The Freshman 15: Is It Real?” Journal of American College Health : J of ACH. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015