Back to School and the Freshman 15

Hey readers! As you may have noticed, I’ve been posting less frequently for the past few weeks, due to the stress and bustle of getting ready and getting settled back at college. From now on, though, I hope to post at least once a week. At it seems like I’ll have a lot of material to work with this semester. I’m taking some really interesting classes on food and nutrition, so I hope to be able to pass on some of what I learn and discuss any questions those courses bring up for me. 

So for this post, it seems appropriate that I address the “Freshman 15,” as many freshmen are presently beginning their four years of college. There is a common perception that many people gain as much as fifteen pounds during their first year of college. Is this really true? If so, why does it occur, and how can you prevent it?

Conveniently enough, the research group I work with has actually explored and is currently exploring this topic. While they have found that the average freshman does not gain fifteen pounds, the average freshman does gain close to four or five pounds. 

So why does this happen? I can think of a few things. The major one is all-you-can-eat dining halls. No longer is your mom or dad preparing food for you, maybe even portioning it out on your plate, hopefully considering the healthiness of what you’re eating. You can pick from a variety of options and eat as much as you want of oftentimes not the healthiest food. This includes unlimited dessert, of course. If your parents have always determined what you eat and you’ve never had to worry about over consuming, then you could easily overeat enough on a meal plan to gain four or five pounds in your first year. 

Another big reason is alcohol. Let’s not pretend that freshmen don’t drink underage. If you go from partying only when one of your high school classmate’s parents are out of town to partying and drinking every weekend at Greek houses, you’re adding hundreds of additional empty calories to your diet in the form of, typically, cheap beer. And I would bet you’re not compensating for those calories by eating less before or after. 

A lot of people blame late night eating in college for weight gain as well. If you keep snacks in your dorm room and you’re up late studying, it’s very easy to mindlessly snack on processed foods like chips and candy, and end up overeating and gaining weight.

I don’t think decreasing activity could be responsible, because most people become more active in college as they go from driving or being driven to and from places to walking everywhere.  But please comment if you can think of any other reasons!

The next question is what can we do about this? The professor whose research I assist believes that daily self-weighing and, even better, having your weight plotted on a graph so you can see the trajectory, prevents weight gain. The study I’m working on has produced data that, so far, pretty convincingly show that this is the case for college students. The control group of students who don’t weigh themselves daily have gained weight over the last two years, while the experimental group who do weigh themselves daily have gained no weight over the last two years. I’ve been doing since last fall as well, and haven’t gained any weight, but that might just be because I’m so health-conscious.

Another thing I’ve found helpful is only keeping single-serve snacks in my dorm. I have fruit and nut bars, individual bags of microwave popcorn, packets of instant oatmeal, and individual yogurt containers. The exceptions are cereal and peanut butter, which I probably wouldn’t munch on at random, and fruit and baby carrots, which I purposefully have so I can nibble on them as I please. I’m not tempted to eat half a bag of chips or chocolate, because I don’t have them around. It works, I swear.

Just paying attention to your portion size in dining halls should help as well. If you think you’re gaining weight, eat more of the healthy stuff (salad, fruit, vegetables) and less of the cheesy, fried, calorie-dense junk. Also find time to fit in exercise; it has plenty of health benefits besides losing weight, and is a proven stress-reliever. 

What are your thoughts? Why do college students gain weight and what should they/we do about it?



2 thoughts on “Back to School and the Freshman 15

  1. I think what makes people gain (or at least how I gained) is eating simply because everyone else is. Last year, if my friends said they were going to the dining hall to eat breakfast after class and I had already eaten after I had worked out earlier, I would say that I’d come just to accompany them. Then, I would find myself eating a second breakfast! I think finding the power to say no to some dinning meet ups or even saying no to yourself when surrounded by extra food you don’t need is a great step to losing weight.

    Also, I had a question about weighing yourself everyday. How does one do that without being obsessive? I find that sometimes if I get obsessed with my weight, I can get very overwhelmed. Any tips on how to avoid this feeling?

    • Yes! Social eating is definitely a huge influence. Chewing gum is a way that I’ve found to resist eating when surrounded by tempting food.
      As for weighing yourself daily, I think that in itself actually helps you become less obsessed with a specific number, because you’ll start to see that you vary within at least a three pound range no matter what. And you should only be concerned when the range starts increasing. So you can catch yourself before you gain a significant amount of weight and make slight adjustments in order to stay where you’re comfortable. If you do it regularly for a long period of time, then you can feel more in control and don’t have to fear the scale because you’ll always know pretty much what you weigh.

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