How to Avoid the Freshman 15
- The freshman 15 is the amount of weight commonly gained during the first year of college.
- Weight changes in college often happen as a result of new eating and lifestyle habits.
- Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle during college is all about moderation and balance.
As an incoming college student, you'll likely hear the dreaded phrase "freshman 15." While it's often true that first-year students experience weight fluctuations, rest assured that the freshman 15 is not inevitable. In fact, it's a bit of an exaggeration, not to mention misleading.
To better understand the freshman 15 and some of the factors that cause first-year students to gain weight, we spoke with Dr. Christen Cupples Cooper, an expert in nutrition education and the founding chair of Pace University's nutrition and dietetics program.
Dr. Christen Cupples Cooper
Dr. Christen Cupples Cooper is the founding chair of the nutrition and dietetics master's program at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York. She holds a doctorate in nutrition education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and completed her undergraduate degrees in political science and history at Wellesley College.
What Is the Freshman 15?
In its most simple definition, the phrase "freshman 15" suggests students frequently gain around 15 pounds in their first year of college. That said, it's often used more loosely as an umbrella term to refer to any amount of weight gained in a student's first year.
In recent years, the phrase has been scrutinized for distorting how students view their health and bodies, even playing a role in triggering and perpetuating eating disorders. "Because food is so closely linked with emotion, any big change in life can be jolting to our food intake," explained Cooper.
“I recommend that any student who faces challenges with food and eating to seek out support at college — a counselor, a resident advisor, and a group of supportive friends.”
Cooper also noted how "students who have struggled with eating disorders sometimes lack the guidance and social support they had at home. Sometimes being away from home initiates eating problems."
Before we cover what causes the freshman 15, it's important to realize that gaining or losing weight is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's completely normal to gain or even lose a few pounds while you're away at school. Generally speaking, a change in weight becomes a concern when it happens as a result of poor diet and lifestyle choices.
What Causes Weight Gain in College?
Different factors can lead to changes in weight during college, many of which are a result of new habits or lifestyle shifts. For example, many first-year students have never shopped or cooked food for themselves before, and have little understanding of what their bodies need nutritionally to be healthy.
"If students are used to eating certain foods on a fairly regular schedule and this changes, their senses of hunger and fullness may be thrown off," said Cooper. "They may eat more than usual or eat out of stress or boredom."
Added Cooper, "Many students also begin snacking more frequently and eating at night or while studying, adding in yet more calories." Whatever the case, it can be difficult to recognize a new bad habit — and even more difficult to correct it. Below is a list of some of the most common reasons for weight changes in first-year students:
- Eating late at night
- Eating unhealthy dining hall food
- Snacking while studying
- Skipping meals
- Lack of exercise
- Poor sleep habits
- Consuming too much alcohol
How to Avoid the Freshman 15
Take Care of Your Nutritional Health
Avoid Unhealthy Dining Hall Food
First and foremost, practice healthy eating habits when dining on campus. "The typical college cafeteria offers endless choices, and we know that the visual impact of variety can lead to overeating," said Cooper. "Students often rely on cheap, highly processed foods that are not particularly filling, but are loaded with calories.
"Stay away from sugary cereals for breakfast and look for healthy alternatives like fruit, yogurt, and eggs. The same applies to lunch and dinner: Steer clear of fried foods and aim for a balanced meal. Most dining halls offer an array of salads, wraps, and other healthy dishes.
Take Advantage of Your Dorm Kitchen
While it may seem daunting at first, taking the initiative to cook in your dorm, instead of going to the dining hall or eating out, is well worth it for your health and can help you develop an essential life skill.
Learning how to cook can be challenging, but maintaining healthy eating habits will keep you from gaining too much weight and make you feel a lot better, too. As Cooper noted, "Sticking with high-quality nutrition — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats — is the best strategy because these foods are nutritious and filling."
Keep Healthy Snacks in Your Dorm
Snacking while studying and eating late at night is practically inevitable in college, which is why it's critical that you stock up on snacks with nutritional value. Instead of candy or chips, consider munching on foods like granola bars, hummus and carrots, mixed nuts, and apple slices with peanut butter.
Take Care of Your Physical Health
Walk to Class and Campus Events
Many first-year students don't have a car, leaving them to rely on school or public transportation to get around campus. But instead of using the bus, consider walking or biking to class. This way you can exercise a little every day without ever stepping foot in a gym.
Take Advantage of Recreational Facilities
Most colleges provide students with access to the campus fitness or recreation center, usually as part of their tuition. There, you can use exercise equipment and enroll in fitness classes. If your school has a rec center, figure out a time you can go that works with your class schedule.
If your school doesn't have a rec center, consider signing up for a membership at a local fitness center. Many private facilities offer discounts to college students and stay open late to accommodate busy schedules.
Drink Plenty of Water and Avoid Excess Alcohol
Let's face it: Partying is a significant part of the college experience. However, drinking too much alcohol and too little water can negatively affect your health. That's not to say you can't (legally) drink alcoholic beverages at all, but rather that it's crucial you moderate your intake.
"Drinking alcohol can also play a large role in the freshman 15 because, again, it adds calories to the diet and often creates hunger that leads to yet more food intake," Cooper stressed. "Avoid drinking alcohol and be sure to stay hydrated with water or unsweetened beverages."
Take Care of Your Mental Health
Try to Control Your Stress Levels
Controlling stress levels is easier said than done, but you should still make it a priority. Oftentimes when students are overwhelmed, the feelings manifest in other areas of their lives, such as their diet and physical activity levels, which can quickly lead to weight changes.
Maybe you signed up for more classes than you could manage, or maybe you're not spending enough time with friends. Regardless, be sure to set aside time to decompress. If you start to feel overwhelmed, consider going to your campus mental health center. Most colleges offer free or low-cost services for students.
Practice Good Sleep Habits
Another factor you'll want to prioritize is developing healthy sleep hygiene. Studies show that poor sleep quality plays a big role in weight gain. Make a concerted effort to get at least seven hours of sleep most nights of the week.
While there are bound to be nights you stay up late, don't let it become a habit. "Regular sleep supports healthy metabolism and blood sugar levels," said Cooper.
Find a Balance Between School and Your Social Life
College isn't just about going to class and studying. In fact, you'll likely overwhelm yourself if you put all your energy into your studies. It's critical that you take time to decompress from school obligations. You can do this by spending time with friends or, if you're more introverted, setting aside time to recharge.
If you're having a hard time meeting people, consider joining a club or attending campus events. Making friends in college can be challenging, but if you take initiative and put yourself out there, you'll likely find other first-year students just as eager to meet people.
The Key to Maintaining Your Health in College
It's completely normal to gain or lose a few pounds in college. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that first-year students living on campus gain 2.7 pounds on average. And while nearly half of them gained weight, 15% lost weight. As you can see, this gain is far from the 15 pounds the phrase "freshman 15" suggests.
With this in mind, try not to get caught up in the mental aspect of the freshman 15. While it's important to be aware of your eating habits and overall health, the last thing you want to do is worry about calories and have that stress potentially lead to something more serious.
"If students eat nutritiously and simply stay mindful of what and how much they are eating and drinking, they can avoid gaining weight," explained Cooper. "Stress alone can throw a wrench in our health. Students should not worry about gaining the freshman 15, but rather channel that energy into doing well in their classes and staying healthy.
"Eating healthy and getting exercise is all about moderation. No food is really off limits, nor do you need to go to the gym seven days a week. As with most things in life, the goal is to achieve a healthy balance.
Mental Health Resources for College Students
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