With all-you-can-eat dining halls, late nights, stressful classes, and the noticeable lack of adult supervision, college seems the perfect setting for extra pounds to build up on freshmen experiencing their newfound freedom.
But is the major “freshman 15” weight gain really as common as claimed?
The term “freshman 15” is relatively new. Originally, first-year college students were famous for putting on ten pounds when they started classes. Even Jodie Foster couldn’t be spared from the fear of weight gain—a 1981 New York Times article teased that in her freshman year at Yale, “she appeared to have what is known here as the ‘freshman 10.’”
Eight years later, an August issue of Seventeen magazine took it even further with a cover line touting tips for “fighting the freshman 15.” The punchy new slogan stuck, and 15 became the number referenced in news stories for years to come. Despite how inevitable some articles might make out weight gain to be, though, the research doesn’t back it up.
While freshmen do tend to put on weight when they start college, women gain just more than 3 pounds on average, while men pack on only about 3.5 pounds, according to a 2011 study in Social Science Quarterly. Suffice to say, that’s way fewer added pounds a lot of first-year students are told to fear. In reality, less than 10 percent of college students in the study gained 15 pounds or more in their first year, the study found.
A number of causes could be behind the slight weight gain, says Jane Jakubczak, MPH, RDN, CSSD, LDN, coordinator of nutrition services at University of Maryland. For one thing, most high school athletes don’t go on to play sports in college, so they could lose hours of exercise that they used to get every day at practice. Plus, as schoolwork starts piling up, students start putting their grades above exercise and sleep, but pig out during late-night study sessions. (Related: These sneaky things could affect your weight—and have nothing to do with diet or exercise.)
But failing to meal-plan is the number-one mistake Jakubczak says she sees. Without designated breaks for lunch, and an adult encouraging breakfast and dinner, students tend to skip meals and binge later.
“They go all day going to classes and study groups and things like that, and 4 or 5 o’clock hits and they eat everything that’s not nailed down,” she says. “Then they wake up the next day and are not particularly hungry because they were eating all night, or feel guilty about the night before and start the restriction cycle again.” By planning out food breaks or packing healthy snacks to eat between classes, students can take the edge off hunger and make healthier choices all day, says Jakubczak. (Related: Here’s why late-night eating can cause weight gain.)
But not everyone gains weight when they enter university. In fact, more than a quarter of the students surveyed actually lost weight freshman year.
The trouble is, the pressure to keep their weight down could lead students to go overboard and develop an eating disorder, says Jakubczak. “What I see happen a lot is students come to college, and they’re so afraid of gaining the freshman 15 that they severely restrict their eating and tend to over-exercise,” she says. “Dieting can be very dangerous because it can spiral out of control.”
To maintain a healthy weight, students should be aware of the extra calories they eat while studying or after a night of drinking, Jakubczak says. Plus, she encourages them to carve out time getting active. “Try and still reserve three hours a week to go to the gym or go for a walk with friends,” she says. “Studies and projects always feel like they’re more important, so it won’t happen if it’s not planned.”