How to avoid the “freshman 15”

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By Christine Barton

Campus News

Pizza, nachos with cheese, chicken wings  and beer might sound like a super bowl spread but it is also what many students consider the major food groups during their college years.  This is not to say that all college students dine on these convenient high fat, low nutrition meals, some actually opt to eat healthier than they did before college. Students who make a habit of these high fat, greasy meals may fall victim to the customary “freshman fifteen.”  

According to Wikipedia, “The Freshman fifteen refers to an amount (somewhat arbitrarily set at fifteen pounds) of weight often gained during a student’s first year at a college or university.”  The definition further discusses that it is a common expression that has surpassed the boundaries of just the United States. It is also regularly used in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The coined term “freshman fifteen” is also referred to as First Year Fatties, Fresher Spread or Fresher Five. Regardless of how it is phrased the term is widespread enough to have a formal definition attached to it.  

A Lack of Evidence
Interestingly enough, there is little hard evidence to support the theory of the freshman fifteen. While some students do gain weight during the first year in college it isn’t necessarily because of college but a change in lifestyle, eating habits and the emotional drain of adapting to the loss associated with college life.  Weight gain can occur because of many factors.  The lack of statistical evidence to support that student weight gain is linked to being a freshman leads us to consider that this may just be a coincidence.  Nevertheless the theory around the freshman fifteen is something that is so embedded in our culture it may as well be fact.   

While the term is coined “freshman fifteen,” that number has few statistics to back it up.  Research shows that while freshman are more likely to gain weight, fifteen pounds is just an arbitrary number. While the term “freshman fifteen” sounds catchy, it does not accurately describe most circumstances. Reports indicated that this is only an average number. Many students do gain weight; some much more than fifteen pounds, while others actually lose weight during their first semester. There are many reasons for weight loss and gain during college.   

Jack Wilson is a Fitness and Dietary Consultant who blogs about healthy living. His blog can be referenced at RunEatBlog.net. Wilson concurs with the number fifteen being arbitrary.  He states; “Most of the research I have looked at indicates that the impending “freshman fifteen” is more like the freshman five to ten.  From my personal experience I have seen friends go off to school and gain anywhere from 5 up to the neighborhood of 40 pounds.”  

Common Reasons for Weight Gain
There are several reasonable explanations for weight gain during freshman year. Some are very obvious and others may be a little more indirect. Traditional aged college students in their late teens and early twenties may be leaving home for the first time.  Freedom to eat what you want and when you want sometimes is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Even if students have been raised with good eating habits they may lack the time and/or the know how to continue to eat the balanced meals provided in their parents’ home.  It is much easier to eat what is put in front of you when it is already prepared that to have to learn how to cook. Some students opt to grab the fast food or frozen dinners to avoid having to cook, or simply because of the convenience of these items.

Emotions play a large part in increased eating and weight gain, as does lack of sleep. Students who are missing home and having difficulty transitioning to college life may have a tendency to overeat or use food to fill an emotional void that often comes with transitioning from high school to college.  

Eating is also a social event in many cultures, most definitely in the United States. We use food as a part of most celebrations. Being away from home for the first time, away from friends and family is difficult for many students. Eating is one way that students socialize.  Gathering at a coffee shop, eating lunch or dinner together as a group in the dining hall or meeting up for a late night snack is typical college behavior. Students who are not naturally social may find that social events that involve eating are not only very available on campus but an easy way to get involved with others.  When food becomes more of an activity than a necessity it can lead to weight gain.

College dining halls and cafeterias are another reason why students may gain weight.  Dining halls tend to be loaded with so many choices of foods and desserts that choosing the healthy stuff like salad or vegetables takes a back seat over the macaroni and cheese and chocolate cake.  Additionally, dorm food is cooked in bulk quantities so the nutritional value takes a back seat to ensuring that there is enough quantity to feed not only the on-campus students but the employees and the commuters. Often times the bulk foods are processed and contain a great deal of fat, carbohydrates and preservatives, all of which contribute to weight gain if consumed in large quantities. The buffet style dining also offers the all-you–can eat option that does give way to making portion control top on the priority list.

The lack of physical activity also contributes to student weight gain. Typically students are busy studying and taking classes so they are less active than in the past by design. Even commuters or returning students not living in the typical dorm situation tend to spend more time in the car driving to and from class and studying. In addition working in a sedentary job during the day and taking classes in the evening leaves little time for even routine physical activity.  In general students are more prone to weight gain simply because of the overall decrease in physical activity. College tends to be a more sedentary than physical process so it makes sense that weight gain may become an issue for some students.

Alcohol is another leading cause of weight gain, especially in underclassmen. It is no surprise that many college students consume alcohol during the college years, some for the first time. Alcohol is much harder to obtain now given the laws surrounding underage drinking, especially in New York, but despite this, college students, even those who are underage do consume alcohol, some to excess.  While partying is a favorite past time for many college students, it is also a leading cause of the empty calories that contribute to increased weight.  Alcohol coupled with greasy take out food can be a recipe for disaster if students do not pay attention to moderation.
Wilson offers some of his thoughts on why students gain weight when they start school.  “Blaming it all on a slowing metabolism is hardly the truth.  What I have not only read, but observed first hand as a college student is the overall lack of inactivity of new and continuing college students. I believe that this is the No. 1 contributor to college weight gain by far.  The weight problem is further compounded by irregular sleeping schedules, late night fast food runs, high calorie quick-fix meals, and of course alcohol consumption.”  Wilson claims that these things not only make your body less efficient at burning calories by throwing off hormone regulation, but also add copious amounts of calories that sedentary students can not handle.

Fighting the Fifteen
Gaining weight is a lot easier than losing it, at least for most people. Those fifteen pounds that seem to develop overnight can take weeks if not months to shed. The key to not falling victim to the dreaded freshman fifteen is prevention. It sounds simple; diet, exercise, eat right, pay attention to portion control and avoid fatty foods. Most people know what they should do to avoid weight gain but doing it is a whole lot harder. The truth is that preventing the weight gain is much easier than trying to shed it after the fact.  

One recent Rutgers study has attempted to put some facts to the freshman fifteen theories. The bottom line of the study found that not every college freshman gains weight. The study did show that the average weight gain was seven pounds. Health care professionals who contributed insight to the study found that freshman who put on weight in their first semester may be more likely to continue to put it on during the length of their college career and into adulthood. This finding suggests that falling into a lifestyle that contributes to weight gain that may continue well beyond college. The key is developing a healthy balance between food and physical fitness to maintain a stable weight.

Most college students are made aware of the drastic changes that they will face during their first semester in college. Many are probably aware of the increased likelihood of weight gain. Being armed with the information is half the battle. There are many temptations during the college years, food and developing bad habits are just two of them.  College students who are well prepared for what they are walking into are less likely to fall victim to the temptations of the college years.  

There are ways to avoid the freshman fifteen by being proactive and developing good habits that will create a balance rather than bad habits that will affect you emotionally, physically and socially. Even for students who can stand to gain a few pounds, doing it the correct way and not falling prey to bad habits will help develop good healthy practices. Not only is weight a concern for students but good nutrition helps students to sleep better, study more effectively and have better general health. Poor nutrition can easily lead to failing grades.   

Most colleges have a free gym and workout equipment that students can use at their leisure. Students who make a habit of working out or getting some type of physical exercise into their college routine will be better equipped to fight the potential freshman fifteen. Simple things such as walking to class, taking the stairs or going the long route around campus can make a big difference. Students are also generally required to take some electives in their freshman year. Considering a nutrition or physical education class once or twice a week can add that little bit of extra movement into the weekly routine.

Avoid getting into bad habits like eating nachos at midnight, skipping breakfast or pulling all nighters is another way to fight the freshman fifteen.  Sleep depravation, skipping breakfast and then binging late at night can leads to increased hunger. This is a trap that is a fast track to weight gain. An occasional all nighter or late night snack is not the end of the world but making a habit of these things can find you a few pounds heavier a few weeks into freshman year.  

Make social outings less about food and more about fun. Yes, eating can be a social event and is a necessary means for survival but rather than socializing around eating try going to a movie or taking an exercise class or walking to the bookstore. Students who keep a diverse schedule of varied events tend to rely less on food as their main form of socialization.

Keep the food in the cafeteria rather than stashing unhealthy snack foods in your dorm room. Less access to snack type foods helps students to keep a more reasonable and regimented eating schedule. Many students do keep a stash of snacks for late night study groups but rather than chips and frozen pizza; things like granola bars, fruit, almonds and a few low calorie drinks can help take the edge off while avoiding the fat and calories late at night.  

Keeping the Balance
College is as much about fun, meeting friends and socializing as it is about classes, studying and academia. Let’s face it; the idea of going to college is to learn about life as well as to set the foundation for a career path. Keeping a healthy balance between all of these things is the key to getting the most out of college and avoiding the famous freshman fifteen that we hear so much about.  

It is a fact that many students get through college without gaining weight, getting into trouble or failing classes. These same students who are successful in their college career do not altogether avoid partying, eating out or the occasional extra cheese pizza at midnight. The key is balance not overindulgence in all areas of college life, including managing weight.  

Daphne Oz is the author of the book “The Dorm Room Diet.” Her experiences as a college student and an overweight child led her to the inspiration for her book. She speaks in a recent interview about being 30 pounds overweight and being able to lose this weight after realizing that she was looking to food to fill an emotional void rather than providing food for her body.  

Oz discusses the vast change from home to college and how that often contributes to student weight gain. Her book provides insight and tips for college students about keeping food in perspective and maintaining a healthy lifestyle despite all of those college habits that often lead to weight gain. The book provides tips on diet, exercise and getting enough rest and even how to make the right and healthy food choices late at night and when eating in the cafeteria.  
It probably goes without saying that most college students do not make it a goal to gain fifteen pounds in their first semester at school so those who take steps to avoid weight gain can be successful.

The freshman fifteen is just a theory, not a requirement for new college students. Keeping in mind the reasons why students gain weight, what might be a trigger and taking steps to stay happy healthy and safe is the best advice for anyone entering their college years. 

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