The Freshman 15: 10 Tips to Avoid College Weight Gain

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The dreaded Freshman 15 — the alleged weight gain that comes with a college education. Rumor has it that soon after you arrive on college campus, you’ll begin to plump like an over-ripened tomato. Perhaps some smirking Baby Boomer has warned you of the Freshman 15, rubbing a well-established belly while advising you to stay away from “so-called lite beers.” But is the Freshman 15 real? What causes the Freshman 15? And how can you avoid first-year college weight gain?

The things you gain in college can last a lifetime, from your education and your qualifications to your new friends and the poundage you put on as an undergrad.

“Not me,” you say. “I was a track star in high school. I set the sophomore record for long-distance crab walk. I can eat whatever I want and I never gain a pound.”

Good. Luck. With. That.

Many of us have a way of “filling out” — as the old euphemism goes — during those college years. I had been a high-school wrestler. Super Bantamweight. I was scrawnier than a Rolling Stone. By the end of the year, I looked more like Meatloaf.

High-fiber dining hall meals. Late-night snacking. Big red Solo cups filled with lord-knows-what. Long sedentary hours spent playing James Bond: GoldenEye on Nintendo 64 (*meet me in 1998 or visit the classic video game history section of your local library to learn more). The point is, freshman year can be a blur of poor decision making, much of which can lead to unwanted weight gain.

It doesn’t have to be this way though.

Even if your metabolism slows down and your high school track records don’t lead to a college career, there are things you can do to mitigate the threat of first year weight gain.

If you’re just getting started on your college journey, check out:

Or read on for 10 Ways to Avoid the Freshman 15!

  Is the Freshman 15 real?

There’s actually some debate over this. Dozens of studies have been conducted, generally with smaller sample sizes and mixed results. Attempting to address these shortcomings, a 2008 study by the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) set out to test the premise that new college entrants tend to gain roughly 15 pounds during the first year.

Ultimately, in a sample of 125 respondents — all 18-year-old first-year students — researchers reported “a significant increase in weight for the freshmen in our study.”

Fortunately, for most students, the “significant increase” was nowhere near 15 pounds. On average, men’s weight increased by 3.7 pounds and women’s weight increased by 1.7 pounds, leading to a total average weight gain of 2.7 pounds. But there were some meaningful variations in weight change, including some students who actually lost weight (15% of respondents); those who observed no change (33%); and those who reported anywhere from 1 to 20 pounds of first-year weight gain (51%).

Of those who gained weight, the average amount of weight gained was 7.4 pounds for men and 7.5 pounds for women.

So a little more than half of all incoming first-year students gain weight, and it’s usually a significant amount. It may not be 15 pounds exactly (although 5% of respondents did actually meet or exceed this conveniently alliterative amount). Still, the amount of weight gain is enough to raise an eyebrow.

Researchers conclude that “although freshman college students gain weight, few gain the legendary 15 lbs. The students’ weight trajectory does, however, suggest opportunities for health promotion during the transition from high school to college dorm life. Future researchers should concentrate on the mechanisms of freshman weight gain and on interventions to prevent unhealthy weight gain.”

So it is in exactly that spirit of intervention and prevention that we offer these tips. While the proverbial Freshman 15 may be an exaggeration, the risk of weight gain is real. With that, here are some tips and resources to keep you on the right path:

1.  Beware the Dining Hall

Most college dining halls are all-you-can-eat. I probably don’t have to tell you how dangerous that is. Ever pop the top button of your trousers to make room for an Atlantic City casino buffet? It’s like that…all the time — breakfast, lunch, dinner and any meals that you might choose to invent in between. Nobody’s counting how many slices of pizza you take, how high you pile your bacon, whether you substitute soft-serve twist for milk on your Lucky Charms. This is one of the first true tests in adult decision making. Be careful about how you approach the buffet that is college life. It may not cost you extra to triple-patty your hamburger or skip classes so you don’t miss a minute of Taco Tuesday, but believe me, you will pay for it. Exercise discipline.

2.  You're Paying for the Gym! Use It!

In addition to exercising discipline, exercise your booty. If you’re living on a college campus, you have access to a ton of valuable resources, including a gym that you can go to whenever you want. When you get out into the real world, you’ll have to pay monthly membership to a gym you’ll never get to, to the extent that the expense which was meant to validate you ultimately fills you with guilt and shame. But for now, that gym belongs to you. Use it to build healthy habits that will follow you into your adult life. Get in there and do your thing, whether that thing is running, swimming, lifting, spinning, whatever. Do your thing, at your pace, and to your desired level of intensity. And don’t be self-conscious. Anybody who’s concentrating on your workout instead of their own is doing it wrong.

3.  Don’t Binge Drink

Look, we’re not encouraging underage drinking, and we know this article is geared toward traditional college freshmen, the vast majority of whom are not of legal drinking age. But we also went to college not all that far back so we know how it really is. We won’t tell you what to do. But we will tell you that booze is generally high in calories, and that it can slow down your metabolism. According to VeryWellMind, it is a notable contributor to weight gain. The particularly high propensity of undergraduate students toward lousy beer and sugary punch only magnifies the risk of weight gain. Simply stated, the more you guzzle, the more you’ll gain.

To learn more about binge drinking, what it is, and how you can avoid it, check out Alcohol On Campus: Let’s Get Real.

4.  Control the Munchies

Alcohol isn’t the only controlled substance connected to weight gain. In the past, we’ve explored the Best Degrees for students entering the high-growth (ahem) field of legal marijuana. Opportunities abound, and this rapidly expanding industry is proving a great professional pathway for those who are serious about cannabis-related subjects such as cultivation, medical therapy, and marketing. However, marijuana comes with one pretty serious side-effect known generally to the medical community as “the munchies.” “The munchies” is defined as the condition of snacking uncontrollably and without meaningful personal reflection as a consequence of cannabis intoxication. So we’re just saying, look out for that.

To learn more about marijuana and its impact on the hippocampus, check out Matriculating in Marijuana: The 9 Best "Green" Degrees.

5.  Get On a Schedule

There’s no official bedtime at college, which means you can stay out until sunrise on Thursday abusing the local 24/7 diner’s bottomless coffee policy. And in most cases, there’s nobody prodding you to wake up for your Friday morning classes either. It’s totally up to you. But here’s the thing. All the weird hours and sleep deprivation can really throw your body off schedule. That leads to missed meals, intermittent junk food snacking, and late-night hunger-gorging. Getting yourself on a good sleep and meal schedule is a strong preventative measure against the unhealthy patterns that lead to weight gain. As a bonus, this type of heath regimen can also lead to sharper focus, more energy, and better academic results.

For more tips on getting into a good lifestyle groove in college, check out Back to School Tips, Tricks, and Hacks.

6.  Sugar Sugar

This one is sort of obvious, but we’ll say it anyway. Sugar=weight gain. And as you get older, the sugary things that you could get away with as a kid may start to show in your midsection. The biggest offenders are sugary drinks like sodas, fruit juices, iced teas, and many of those putrid energy drinks. If you drink a lot of coffee, you may consider taking it black. All that cream and sugar add up. And if you like your booze, well…here’s a resource to be aware of when you do reach legal drinking age. Don’t tell anybody we told you. Also, limit candy bars, sugary snacks, heavy carbs, and probably anything with the word “frosted” in the name.

7.  Learn About Nutrition

We’re guessing our tips on sugar aren’t exactly a revelation. But there’s a lot more to nutrition than that. Fight the battle against belly flab with the most powerful weapon of all: a tank. No, just kidding. It’s knowledge. Tanks are solid, but knowledge is the most powerful weapon of all. As long as you’re going to school to learn, use some of that time to advance your understanding of human health and nutrition. Make smart decisions based on real information.

To get started, check out The Best Online Health and Nutrition Certificates.

8.  Stay in Motion

Going to college means longer lectures, marathon study sessions, and lengthy library visits. All of this means a lot of sitting. And if you’re in online college, factor in the complete absence of a physical commute. That’s a lot of time spent on your @$$. This increased sedentary time is a major contributor to weight gain, and one that you’ll need to be conscious of during your time in school. Take all the opportunities you can to resist sedentary habits. You may not be able to help sitting for double-period classes, but you can participate in a campus intramural activity. You may have to spend hours poring over texts, but you can do some of it at a standing desk. Your week may demand a lot of stationary activity, but you can spend a part of your weekend going on long hikes or neighborhood walks (depending on where you live, of course). Whatever you do, make sure you get up and out!

9.  Get Involved

Lucky for you, as a college student, you have access to a lot of opportunities for engagement and interaction. These activities can be the best way to remain physically active. Look for constructive and healthy ways to spend your time. It goes without saying that this type of enrichment is an essential part of the college experience. But these activities can also be a great alternative to sitting, snacking, or binge drinking.

Check out these cool opportunities to get involved:

10.  The Mental Game

The connection between mental and physical health is well-established. Feelings of stress, anxiety or depression can lead to unhealthy eating habits, poor sleep patterns, and sedentary behavior. All of these are considerable risk factors for weight gain. Unfortunately, they are also not altogether uncommon among college students. In addition to pursuing nutritional and fitness goals, make sure that you’re staying fit up there (I know you can’t see it, but I was pointing to my head). Be sure that you’re taking all the right steps to maintain, nurture, and treat your mental health.

To learn more, check out our Interview with College Student Mental Health Expert and JED Foundation Director, Lee Swain.

And if you’re attending online college, check out Mental Health Resources for Online College Students.

So 15 pounds may be a slight exaggeration, but first-year college weight gain is very real. It doesn’t have to be your reality though. Follow these tips and take on your freshman year with a healthy body and mind.

And for more critical student health topics, check out our Focus on Student Health and prepare yourself for a healthy college experience!

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