The Freshman 15: Will Your College Student Gain More From College Than You Expected?

The Freshman 15.  It’s a classic myth about college. Students who head off to college will gain approximately 15 pounds during their freshman year.  The stories have been around for a long time.  They are persistent.  Are they still true?  Maybe.  Sometimes. While some studies do support the 15 pound theory, another suggests that the number may be closer to 4 pounds, and yet another suggests 5-7 pounds during the freshman year followed by 2-3 during the sophomore year.

You have many things to worry about as your student heads off to college, and whether or not she gains a few pounds may not be on the top of the list.  However, it is worth giving some thought to this myth — and its sometimes truth — because it may reflect some additional truths about college students’ health in general.

Why might your student gain weight just because he’s going to college?

If college students gain weight during freshman year, the reasons are as different as the students themselves.  It’s impossible to pinpoint any single reason, but the cumulative effect of several possible reasons may add up.

  • College meal plans — Many college meal plans are all-you-can-eat plans.  Students sign in for a meal, or swipe their ID card, and then can eat whatever they want during the meal time.  Choices are sometimes overwhelming — and appetizing.  A little of this, and a little of that, and students may be eating a lot of food.
  • Social meals — Students generally go to meals with their friends.  This is one of the wonderful benefits of college life.  Students may spend a long time at meals socializing with their friends.  The problem is not the socializing, it may be the amount of time spent in the dining hall.  Couple long meals with all-you-can-eat meals, and students may head back to the counter several times.  Students may be eating more food than they realize.
  • Irregular schedules — Many student schedules are hectic, and students may often miss or skip a meal.  Students who miss a meal may then need to grab something quick later.  Often that quickly grabbed snack may not be the best food choice.
  • Food choice — College dining halls today offer a vast array of options to students.  Students, however, may not always make the wisest choices.  Students may head more often for the French fries and burgers than for the salad bar, broiled chicken and fruit.
  • Snacking — Students often snack their way through the day — and the night.  A quick bite between classes, or during late night study sessions or residence hall gatherings, and students may be eating more than they did at home.
  • Social gatherings — One of the benefits of living on a college campus is the built in opportunities to gather informally with friends.  Whether the gathering is late at night in the dorm or heading out on the town, students spend time with their friends.  Many of these gathering times involve food.  Dinner in town, ordering pizza late at night, grabbing some quick take-out food,  or a coffee and donut run before class all add up to more food being eaten — and not necessarily the best food choices.
  • College functions — Colleges offer many opportunities for students.  Lectures, performances, clubs, seminars, panel discussions, meetings with faculty members.  Many colleges have also learned that one way to help get students in the door for activities is to offer food.  So active students may also be actively snacking more.
  • Change of routine — Many college students who were physically active during high school are not as active once they get to college.  Some athletes, who were used to daily team workouts, opt not to play a sport in college.  Some students participated in other physical activities, such as dance or martial arts or cheerleading.  Some students walked distances to and from school daily in high school.  Even some part time jobs, such as waiting tables or mowing lawns were active.  Once students arrive at college, they may not be participating in these activities.
  • Emotional factors — Stress is a part of college life. Students who may be stressed and/or homesick may eat for comfort.
  • Energy drinks — Energy drinks, especially those with caffeine, are popular with students today.  Many students would not consider heading to class, or sitting down to a study session, without one of the popular energy or sports drinks.  The bottles are evident on student desks in most classrooms and dorm rooms.  Although many students do carry water bottles, many also think nothing of drinking several ”power” drinks per day.  Unfortunately, these drinks are also loaded with sugar and calories.
  • Alcohol — Many college students drink — some drink a lot.  Aside from other social problems that this may cause, alcohol contains calories.  When students drink, they are not thinking about the calories, but those calories add up.

Is weight gain inevitable?

With all of the possible sources of weight gain, it may seem as though gaining weight at college must be inevitable. Without some conscious thought, that may be true.  However, students can make a few choices that may help them avoid some of the legendary Freshman 15.

  • Visit the gym— Many colleges have state-of-the-art fitness facilities with equipment and fitness classes being offered.  Your student can choose to take advantage of these facilities — which are usually free of charge to students.
  • Stay active — Simple choices such as walking around campus or biking rather than driving can burn calories and make a difference.
  • Join intramural sports — Although many students choose not to participate in a varsity sport, most colleges offer opportunities for students to get involved in sports more informally through intramural sports.  In addition to the physical benefits of participating, this is a great way for your student to get to know other students better.
  • Sleep — Finding the balance of rest and activity can help.  Lack of sleep, a chronic condition for many college students, can lead to poor eating habits and can change a student’s body metabolism.
  • Make careful food choices — Most college dining services offer students a wide array of options.  Students can make careful choices, trying to opt for some healthier choices.
  • Drink water — Substitute water for energy drinks.  Invest in a good water bottle and carry it everywhere.  (This may also benefit a student budget.)
  • Watch snacking — Make careful snacking choices.  If late-night pizza is in order, eat fewer slices, or opt out of the pepperoni.  Try substituting popcorn for pizza, or find some other lower calorie choice.

The Freshman 15 doesn’t have to be inevitable for your college student.  Part of the problem for many students is that the weight gain seems to sneak up and take them by surprise.  If your student is aware of the possible pitfalls, and makes an effort to keep balance, make wise food choices, and stay active, the Freshman 15 can truly become a myth.

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