It’s a big leap from high school to college. Many of us head into those hallowed halls of higher learning stoked by the idea of more freedom, the chance to pursue our dreams, and some major ragers ahead.
But for some, a subject can loom large over that first year of college: The “freshman 15.” It’s the idea that while we’re celebrating our first taste of independence and growing into adults, our bodies might be growing, too.
Is the freshman 15 real? And if it is, are you OK with it? Gaining weight doesn’t mean that your health will be compromised. All bodies can be healthy. But if you personally don’t want to gain weight in that first college year, there are ways to avoid it.
Is the freshman 15 real?
Weight gain in college is legit, though it’s not quite the freshman 15. Students gain an average of 3 to 10 pounds in their first year or so of college.
The “freshman 15” is a phrase used to describe the amount of weight first-year college students supposedly gain. One small study that looked at college weight gain internationally in Lebanon found that it’s probably not precisely 15 pounds, and it doesn’t only happen during the first year of college.
In reality, Johns Hopkins Medicine says that college students gain 3 to 10 pounds — more weight than their peers who don’t go to college. The weight gain happens over a couple of years, but most of it adds on in the first semester of freshman year.
A small research review showed that two-thirds of college students put on the freshman not-quite-15. And since most adults put on an average of 1 to 2 pounds a year, college can definitely fast-track weight gain.
This may not bother you at all. But if it does, you may feel that losing weight can be challenging.
A few factors conspire to put weight on you during your first year or 2 of college.
College is synonymous with parties, and parties can mean alcohol. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than half of college students say they drink, and one-third binge drink, which for men means downing 5 or more drinks at a time, and for women 4 or more drinks.
Since one beer can contain more than 150 calories, 4 or 5 drinks a night adds up quickly. Not only does alcohol cause weight gain itself, but it also fuels late-night pizza and burger binges that add to your total daily calorie count.
The processed snack foods
Your parents may have ruled the fridge and pantry at home, but now you’re on your own. And that means you can eat what you want when you want. And when you’re buried in homework and social callings, keeping an eye on nutrition can take a backseat.
College diets aren’t known for their high fruit and vegetable content. When students chow down, it’s often on processed snack foods. In a one study, about 70 percent of students said they ate fast food at least once a day.
Fast food not only tastes good, but it’s also convenient. It can seem much easier to grab a burger or egg sandwich on your way to class than to fix yourself a veggie omelet or bowl of oatmeal.
Food quality isn’t the only factor. Quantity is, too.
Many college meal plans are of the all-you-can-eat variety. Though cafeterias often feature salad bars, they also have pizza stations and ice cream machines. And that can add up to trouble for hungry students.
Let’s face it, going off to college is stressful. You’re in a whole new place, often far from your family and high school friends. And you’ve got to find your way around a bunch of classes, plus enter a totally new social orbit.
While some people’s response to stress is to eat less, others find comfort in a greasy burger or pint of ice cream — especially after a night of drinking. These comfort foods may feel good in the moment, but they may be keeping more nutrient-dense choices away.
The couch time
Many college activities, like sitting in class, studying, and playing video games, aren’t exactly active pursuits. One study found that about half of college students don’t move nearly enough. Too little exercise contributes to weight gain.
The late nights
An all-nighter can leave you wiped out the next day. Too many of them will wipe out any gains you’ve made by trying to eat a balanced diet and exercise more.
A lack of sleep throws off the balance of hormones in your body that make you feel hungry and full. Leptin, which helps you feel satisfied after you eat, drops. And ghrelin, which stimulates your appetite, rises.
The result: You get some serious munchies.
Pursuing a higher education doesn’t destine you to gain weight. Try these 10 tips to help you avoid those extra pounds if that’s your goal:
- Banish temptations. Chips, cookies, and soda in your dorm room are just calling out for you to eat them. Stock your mini fridge with low fat yogurt, fresh fruit, and sparkling water instead.
- Get your full 7 to 9. It can be tough to squeeze in sleep with a full class-load and social calendar, but find the time. Sleeping well will reset the balance of hunger hormones, so you won’t be starving enough to splurge.
- Be a strategic buffet surfer. When you can eat all you want, temptations abound. Steer away from the pizza and burgers, and toward the nutritious foods on the salad bar. You can find grilled chicken and veggies there. Put your meal on a small plate, and don’t head back for seconds.
- Drink more. No, not beer or soda. Limit those extra calories. Carry a water bottle around campus and sip from it liberally to fill you up between meals.
- Pound the protein. Some foods keep you fuller than others. Protein-rich lean chicken, almonds, and yogurt are more filling than nutrient-deficient snacks like cookies and candy. Nutrient-dense foods will help curb food cravings.
- Walk everywhere. Leave extra time in the morning to skip the shuttle and get to class on your own two feet. You can clock a lot of miles just walking back and forth to your classes and dorm. Also don’t be afraid to round up friends for some Frisbee or flag football.
- Don’t skip meals. Even if you’re short on time, not eating only leads to hunger intense enough to succumb to processed snack food cravings. Grab a nutritious snack, like a granola bar or yogurt.
- Think before you eat. When you eat while studying or watching TV, your brain turns off and you can mindlessly munch through a lot of calories. Only eat when you can totally focus on your food.
- Skip the 1 a.m. fast food run. The urge for post-party pizza is strong. Give it a miss or only have a small portion. If you’re really hungry late at night, choose a nutritious midnight snack.
- Max out the facilities. You’re paying that high tuition, so take advantage of all the perks your school offers. Use the gym, basketball courts, fitness classes, or join an intramural sports team — whichever activity fits your style and current mood.