"College is the reward for surviving high school.” If these wise words of rom-com director Judd Apatow are to be believed, your college years should be some of the best years of life, and more often than not, they are! College gives you a few years of fun before you need to step into a world filled with adult responsibility. But as great as college can be, your first year can have its ups and downs, and perhaps the most dreaded hurdle of them all is the freshman 15.
What is the freshman 15?
Simply put, the freshman 15 refers to the weight gain first-year students, or freshmen, often go through in college, which is usually around 15 pounds (around 7 kilograms for those of us who prefer the metric system). The term has most widely been used and popularised by the US, but the concept itself - rapid weight gain in college - is pretty universal.
Is it real?
Now the freshman 15 is by no means a hard and fast rule, and there’s no sweeping declaration being made stating that every first-year student will be undergoing rapid weight gain. The freshman 15 is more of an urban myth, but like most myths, it's a product of some societal truths. A number of different universities have done studies to try and document whether or not students actually gain weight in their first year, and if they do, how much weight do they gain? While we don’t have access to data from every single university in the country, we do have some numbers for you to ponder over.
The freshman 15: Fact or fiction?
We’re not here to debunk any myths or get you to believe that the freshman 15 is an undisputable law of nature. All we're here to do is to keep you informed. Many universities and health institutes have conducted both formal and informal studies on students’ weight gain in their first year of college, and here are some of the important numbers:
- Auburn University: Their research showed that 5% of freshmen gained 15 pounds in their first year. Read the full study: “The Freshman 15: Weight Change in Relation to Body Image and Body Measurements.”
- Journal of American College Health: First-year students gain weight 5.5 times faster than the general population. Read the full study: The Freshman 15: Is it Real?
- Cornell University: Data collected by Professor Davis Levitsky showed that first years gained around 4.5 - 5 pounds.
- Utah State University: An informal survey conducted by the college showed that 25% of the freshmen population gained 10 pounds in their first semester alone.
- Rutgers University: An informal survey conducted by the university showed that freshmen gained approximately 7 pounds their first year.
There are hundreds of studies that have been conducted on the freshman 15, but we've just listed down a few for you. Unsurprisingly, results vary across states and are affected by various factors. However, most studies do reveal that there is a significant number of students that gain weight during their first year of college. It isn’t going to be the full freshmen class, and it isn't always the full 15 pounds, but some weight gain is not surprising.
What causes weight gain in college?
Weight gain in and of itself isn’t necessarily a negative thing and can be beneficial and even necessary for some people. However, the weight gain associated with the freshman 15 is often born out of unhealthy habits and poor lifestyle choices which is why this type of weight gain often is negatively received by peers and judgemental family members. Before you can work on losing the freshman 15, let’s understand what causes it.
1. Lack of adequate sleep
Functioning on 3 hours of sleep every night isn’t the flex you think it is. A lack of an adequate amount of sleep per day, which is approximately 6-8 hours a day, has been linked to a higher Body Mass Index. Don’t doubt the importance of sleep, because a lack of sleep can also lead to an increase in appetite, leading to weight gain and also causes fatigue which reduces your ability to engage in physical activity during the day.
2. Eating very late at night
The jury’s still out on whether or not there is a direct cause between the time of day and calorie intake that leads to weight gain, but it isn’t always about when you eat; it's more about what you eat. When students reach out for a midnight snack, the chances are it's not going to be a nice salad or a bowl of fruit. Midnight snacking also just means an added meal at the end of the day, which will no doubt push you a little closer to the freshman 15.
3. Increased alcohol intake
When the cat's away, the mice will play. For many of us, college is the first time we’re away from home and no longer have our every move being watched like a hawk by our well-meaning parents. Parties and alcohol are no doubt a part of the college experience, but alcohol is a major contributor to weight gain in students.
4. Regular social events
Surviving the first year of college is in large part possible because of all the fun social events that are planned out. Your calendars are full of orientation days, dorm room parties, club meetings and college events that all usually have one major pull - free food. Free food is music to any broke college kid’s ears, but the food at all these events is usually junk food and very often full of sugar. While you should definitely be going to these events, make sure you’re going to make friends and socialize, and not to get your next meal.
5. Unregulated food habits
The freedom to be in charge of your own food can actually be very liberating. Unfortunately, most of us tend to overdo it, failing to place any sort of restriction on what we eat, thus failing to meet the basic nutritional requirements required to maintain a healthy body weight. It also certainly doesn’t help that junk food is the cheapest and most readily available form of food.
What are the best ways to avoid the freshman 15?
Counting calories, skipping meals, and fad diet trends are not the way to avoid the freshman 15. Weight gain and weight loss should both always be done in the healthiest way possible. Since the freshman 15 is often a product of a big lifestyle change, there are a lot of small changes you can incorporate into your daily routine that will help you avoid it, while still allowing you to live your college life as freely as possible.
1. Eat a heavy breakfast
Instead of sleeping through your alarms and rushing to your 9 am class in your pajamas, wake up just a little earlier and fill up on some protein and carbohydrates to give yourself enough energy to get through the day. A good breakfast will keep you energised for a large part of the day and will reduce your need to snack during the day, thus keeping off the freshman fifteen.
2. Exercise once a day
Exercise doesn’t necessarily have to mean hitting the gym every morning. Walking to classes instead of taking the bus, or even joining your school’s dance club can give you a dose of added physical activity that your body needs to maintain a healthy body mass index. Exercise has also proven to be an incredible mood lifter, so if first year isn’t going exactly how you had planned, maybe some exercise can help you make the most of your university life. If you want to track your progress, there are a number of healthcare apps to help you see if you’re reaching your goal.
3. Start cooking meals
If your first-year housing is nice enough to give you a kitchen, make full use of it. Once you start preparing your own meals and buying your own ingredients, you’re very likely to become more conscious of the food that goes into your body. Cooking is also a great life skill for you to pick up, and there are tons of easy recipes to get you started. Most first year accommodation isn’t equipped with a fully stocked kitchen, but on the amber website, you can find a range of student housing options that come with fully equipped kitchens, wifi and are fully furnished.
4. Don’t snack & study
A big cause of the freshman 15 is too much snacking. Snacking isn’t always bad, but when you snack while you watch TV or study for an exam, that can lead to an increase in your calorie intake that goes above the required limit. Instead of snacking while you study, take a 15-minute study break, eat a slightly more filling snack and then get back to work. You’ll have more energy to concentrate on your studies and you won’t be overeating.
5. Everything in moderation
Don’t completely cut out junk food, alcohol or sugar. Good food and good company is what life is all about. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional drink or cheesy pizza and if you’re craving cup noodles at 2 am you don’t always need to fight it. The key to keeping the freshman 15 off is finding a good balance between eating what you enjoy and what is good for you in moderation. Once you find a routine that worlds for you, stick to it!
From what it is to how to prevent it, that was all you needed to know about the freshman 15! Whether it's just an old wive’s tale or not, it frankly doesn’t matter all too much. College comes with a host of new experiences and a fresh set of problems for you to tackle and weight fluctuation is just another piece of the puzzle. If you stick to our tips and make health your top priority, you’ll figure out your first year in no time.