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The Freshman 15: Why Students Tend to Gain Weight in College

Freshman 15

Almost every American college student has heard about the “Freshman 15” and it can be a daunting prospect for anyone entering college for the first time.

Many freshmen want to maintain their weight or even lose a few pounds. However, the common view is that everyone gains weight during their first year.

It’s important to note that while weight gain is common, it’s not always as much as 15 pounds.

One review of longitudinal, peer-reviewed studies found that almost two-thirds of freshmen across several countries gained weight. These students gained at a rate that was much faster than that of the general population.

However, another study showed that the average amount of weight students gained was just 2.7 pounds. Still, freshmen gained weight at a rate that was 5.5 times larger than that of the general population.

So what does this mean if you’ve recently started college? While it’s possible that you could put on some pounds during your first year, it’s not inevitable.

Knowing what can cause weight gain at this stage of your life is the first step in maintaining a healthy weight.

Here are some of the most common reasons why freshmen see the number on the scale going up.

Increased Stress

Going to college is exciting but it can also be stressful.

Students are often living on their own for the first time. They have to manage their finances, do well in their courses, and make new friends, all at the same time.

Even the smartest freshmen can feel pressured when working on essays or preparing for exams.

Unfortunately, stress leads to an increase in cortisol levels and elevated cortisol levels tend to cause weight gain.

Also, it’s common for people to turn to food for comfort when they feel stressed. More specifically, they often turn to highly palatable foods that contain lots of fat and sugar.

Dietary Changes

High school students often get regular home-cooked meals but college students typically don’t. Many get by on fast food, cafeteria meals, and pre-packaged, highly processed snacks. Eating foods that are high in calories can lead to weight gain over time.

One study involving first-year college students found that those who lived on campus typically ate fewer fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and other healthy foods.

Meanwhile, college students often burn the midnight oil or party all hours of the night. Eating late at night can also make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

In one study, researchers found that individuals who ate between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. ingested about 500 more calories per day than those who only ate during daylight hours. These individuals also gained about 3.5 pounds more annually.

This could be because people who eat late tend to grab what’s most convenient and that’s most likely to be unhealthy high-calorie foods. This is especially the case on college campuses where food options can be limited.

Increased Alcohol Intake

An occasional drink won’t cause you to gain weight but frequent alcohol consumption can increase your calorie intake significantly and lead to weight gain.

Each gram of alcohol contains seven calories and many drinks include mixers that provide even more calories from fat and carbohydrates.

Alcohol may also increase your appetite and reduce your restraint where food is concerned. If you’re intoxicated, you may be more likely to consume foods that are high in salt and fat and low in nutrients.

Reduced Exercise

We all know that exercise is important for good physical and mental health. However, young people tend to become less active when they move from high school to college.

They are often busy with classes, extracurricular activities, and part-time jobs. Those who aren’t athletes can easily find themselves becoming more sedentary.

One piece of research found that on average, students sit for more than seven hours per day.

People who sit for long periods burn fewer calories than those who are active. If you continue to eat the same way as you did when you were more active, you could gain weight.

Underlying Health Issues

Several health conditions that are linked to weight gain can develop during your college years.

Symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism often start showing up in adolescence and young adulthood.

There’s also a correlation between major depressive disorder and weight gain, and this too is prevalent among college-aged people.

College students can also develop binge eating disorder and other eating disorders that can lead to weight gain. These are all serious conditions that need to be treated by a medical professional.

Tips for Managing Weight in College

For many people, weight gain is undesirable since it affects the way they look and feel. However, you also need to consider that the things you do during your college years can affect your health later in life.

Individuals who are overweight in their teenage years and 20s are more likely to be overweight as they get older. Gaining weight in early adulthood is also linked to a variety of chronic illnesses including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers.

Therefore, it’s important that you take the necessary steps to prevent unwanted weight gain. Here are some of the things you can do.

Get Active

Try to find a way to include physical activity in your schedule. If you choose a form of exercise that you enjoy, you’ll be more likely to stick with it.

Some people prefer group fitness classes while others are more comfortable following an online workout or even using a fitness app. You can also try jogging or swimming if you’d rather be outdoors.

If you find it difficult to stick to an exercise routine, you can also incorporate more movement into your daily activities.

This may mean taking the stairs between classes instead of using the elevators or walking to campus instead of driving or taking public transport if you live off-campus. These seemingly small changes can add up.

You can also look for opportunities to get moving before the semester starts. Check out the campus rec center for interesting classes and activities before the start of school so you can add them to your schedule. This will help to ensure that you don’t get so busy with classes and other things that you don’t have time for exercise.

Watch What You Eat

It’s easy to grab fast food but if you want to reduce or maintain your weight, you need to make healthier choices. Make it a priority to eat nutrient-dense foods at mealtimes.

This means consuming fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins such as chicken breast, turkey, and salmon. These foods will make you feel fuller for longer and you’ll have less room for fatty or carbohydrate-heavy options.

When you heard to the campus cafeteria consider:

  • Filling your plate with salads and vegetables
  • Eating bread, fries, and other carbs in moderation
  • Opting for grilled, baked, or steamed meats instead of fried
  • Skipping soda or juice and drinking water instead
  • Limiting sugar-laden desserts and having a piece of fruit instead

In addition to preventing undesired weight gain, you’ll also have more energy to get you through the day.

Eating healthily doesn’t mean you won’t snack between meals. However, you do need to plan ahead so you can have some nutritious choices at hand.

Nuts are an excellent option since they contain both protein and healthy fats. However, you can also keep some high-fiber snack bars in your dorm room or pair fruit slices with nut butter when you need both nutritious carbs and fats.

When cravings hit, you won’t have to turn to unhealthy, overly-processed snacks that could increase your weight.

Manage Your Stress Levels

There are many different ways to reduce stress so you’ll need to find the strategies that work best for you. You can try studying or doing your homework outdoors, practicing yoga or meditation between classes, journaling at the end of a long day, or listening to music.

It can also be helpful to create a schedule and stick to it. When you know exactly what you have to do and when you have to do it, you’ll be less overwhelmed. If you can’t find a healthy way to manage stress on your own, talk to a mental health professional either on or off-campus.

College Sleep

Get A Good Night’s Rest

It’s a normal part of the college experience to spend a few late nights out with friends or at home studying. However, a lack of sleep has been linked to obesity in adolescents so you should try to get at least seven hours of sleep most nights of the week.

To help ensure you fall asleep and stay asleep, you can try:

  • Reducing screen time before bed
  • Limiting your caffeine intake late in the day
  • Not exercising within two to three hours of bedtime
  • Avoiding nicotine
  • Not eating heavy meals before bed
  • Ensuring your bedroom is dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature

Build a Strong Support System

If you have certain health and wellness goals, you need to surround yourself with people who are of a similar mind.

It will be much harder to eat healthy foods, exercise, and get adequate rest if your friends are encouraging you to do the opposite.

Now that you’re away from your family, you need to build new relationships with people who support your physical and mental health. Joining a club that interests you is a great way to make new friends.

Seek Diagnosis and Treatment for Underlying Health Issues

Weight gain isn’t always due to lifestyle choices. If you notice that you’re rapidly putting on weight and there’s no obvious reason for it, you should see a doctor.

This is especially important if you’re experiencing other symptoms of poor health.

You need to find out if you have any underlying conditions that cause weight gain so don’t skip regular checkups. Many college students find it easy and convenient to visit the health center on campus. Once you’ve received a diagnosis, make sure you follow your doctor’s advice.

Final Thoughts on College Weight Gain

It’s clear that many first-year college students gain weight even though it’s often less than the infamous 15 pounds. However, entering college doesn’t automatically mean you’ll start packing on the pounds.

The reasons for weight gain are numerous and often complex. However, your diet and lifestyle choice are within your control.

We’ve identified some of the ways in which you can reach or maintain your desired weight. Try these tips and seek professional help if you need additional support with your health journey.

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This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.

Our editorial team strives to present both sides of the argument with in-depth analysis and links to resources.

This article contains scientific and health-related references. The numbers in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.