Is the Freshman 15 legitimate, or simply a myth? Well that depends with whom you are talking. Some folks do go off to college and experience the Freshman 15 (and even 20!), while some students may even lose weight. And the research seems divided too. A study published in 2011 showed that the average college woman gained 2.4 pounds during her freshman year, while men gained an average of 3.4 pounds. A later study conducted at Auburn University followed students through all four years of college, and found that 70% of them packed on the pounds (an average of 12 pounds, and up to 37). So one of the questions to ask is whether college weight gain is inevitable or is it preventable?
As the registered dietitian for Campus Dining here at Notre Dame for the last 21 years, I’ve been able to meet with hundreds of students in that time. And those encounters can be very personal with intimate details revealed such as weight, dieting history, fears, etc… In my experience working with a variety of students, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the latter, that college weight gain is indeed preventable. There is nothing magical about stepping foot on a college campus that will lead a student to gain weight. There is nothing drastically different about the foods served in college cafeterias compared to what one would eat at home (i.e., baked chicken is baked chicken, spaghetti is spaghetti, a hamburger is a hamburger). It very simply comes down to choices of eating, exercising, sleeping, and having the awareness that all three of these components need to stay in some level of harmony.
With eating it is important to stay mindful of one’s hunger levels and the whole purpose behind eating… to fuel our bodies in a healthy way. So when heading to the dining hall, figure out how hungry you are, what looks and sounds good to you, and eat with balance from the various food groups. The MyPlate icon can be a great reference for a healthy meal plate. Also, stay on top of your exercise. Yes you are being active by walking to class and the library, but don’t forget about more organized activity such as taking an exercise class and strength training. Investing in an exercise tracker can be a fantastic tool to help ensure that you staying active enough. Finally, a very overlooked piece to the weight control strategy is getting to bed at a decent time and getting enough sleep. The later you stay up, the more you’ll want to snack. Also, hormones are involved here as well; hormones that affect your metabolism, appetite, and satiety levels are all impacted by sleep. So organize your time well and keep sleep as a priority.
Remember, the college years can be some of the best years of your life. While freshman weight gain can be a reality for some, it doesn’t have to be your fate. Stay balanced with your approach to eating, exercise, and sleep, then let Mother Nature do the rest.