Freshman 15

Young women's version of this guide

The “Freshman 15” is the myth that college students will gain fifteen pounds during their first year at school. Truthfully, some students will gain weight (on average, between 3 and 10 pounds during freshman and sophomore year), and others may lose weight or stay the same weight.

There are many changes that happen during the first year of college that can affect your eating and exercise habits. For example, eating your meals in an all-you-care-to-eat dining hall with friends is very different from eating meals at home with your family. You might experience significant amounts of stress due to being away from home or having a heavy workload of classes, and both may cause people to turn to food for comfort or lack necessary amounts of sleep. Also, sometimes people who played sports in high school will not go on to play sports at the college level, so they no longer have exercise naturally built into their day. Although these changes may take some getting used to, it doesn’t mean that they have to result in weight gain.

What behaviors can contribute to weight gain?

The following 6 behaviors may lead to unhealthy weight gain during college:

  1. Eating too much “junk” food
  2. Choosing unhealthy or unbalanced options in the dining hall
  3. Eating large portions or having second or third helpings
  4. Eating late at night
  5. Not doing physical activity
  6. Drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking
  7. Not sleeping as much as the body needs

In addition to the above reasons, a person’s weight is also affected by genetics, medications, mental health status, disease state, and environmental factors such as availability of fresh foods.

How can I maintain a healthy weight when I am in college?

Weight status is not necessarily a good indicator of health. Achieving optimum health status involves making healthy, nutritious food choices, eating proper portions, and getting enough exercise. Follow these tips to help you stay healthy during college:

  • Eat nutritious snacks. Stock your room refrigerator with healthy snacks such as string cheese, baby carrots, hummus, and yogurt. Popcorn, granola bars, and nuts are also healthy snacks but don’t need to be stored in the fridge. It’s okay to eat chips, soda, or sweets once in a while, but limit the amount and how often. Try bringing fruit or other healthy snacks back from the dining hall to eat later.
  • Choose healthy options. Since you will probably be eating most of your meals in the dining hall, get in the habit of choosing healthy options and eating balanced meals. Look for plant-based or lean proteins and choose whole grains such as whole grain bread, brown rice, and whole grain pasta. Be sure to eat fruits and vegetables at every meal and try to make them half of your plate. Limit foods that are fried and/or made with lots of added fats, sugar, and salts. If you’re not sure how a dish is prepared, you can always ask the chef or food service manager.  Some schools may have signs in the dining hall with symbols that indicate whether a food or dish is a healthy option. If you’d like even more guidance you can check to see if your school has a Registered Dietitian (RD) on staff to meet with and go over healthy dining options.
  • Plan ahead. Think about when you have time to visit the dining halls and when you will need to pack meals or snacks to take with you to class or your other activities. By planning ahead, you can make sure that you will have food when you are hungry and you can make healthier decisions instead of impulse purchases. Your school may also have a dining website, where you can check to see what is being served that day or week.
  • Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. All-you-care-to-eat dining halls can contribute to overeating. Be conscious of how much you are eating (not just what you are eating) and eat until you are comfortably full, but not stuffed. Even if the cafeteria is serving lots of your favorite foods, try to stick with one entrée. You can always choose something different next time.  Dining halls tend to rotate food options on weekly or monthly schedules, so your favorite foods will likely be available very often.
  • Make mindful decisions when eating late at night. It’s okay to eat a small snack at night if you are hungry, but eating late night meals when you aren’t really hungry can be an unhealthy choice.
  • Be active. Even though you might not have gym class or after school practice anymore, you can still be physically active! Find ways to fit physical activity such as walking, biking, dancing, or playing sports, into your schedule. Consider making a gym date or sign up for an intramural sport. Find a friend who shares your goal of wanting to stay in shape and make plans to work out or go for a walk/run together. Not only will it keep you fit, but you’ll also build new friendships. Being active will give you more energy and can also help you deal with stress.  If you are going to school in a new city or state, exercise can be a great way to explore the area!
  • Think before you drink. Alcoholic beverages contain lots of calories. Drinking alcohol can also lead to loss of judgment, which may also cause some people to over-eat late at night.  Also make sure to eat a meal before you go out, as this may help prevent eating late at night.
  • Be aware of your stress level. If you find yourself frequently eating when you’re not hungry you might want to check in with your level of stress. Are you feeling sad about being away from home? Is the workload of your classes overwhelming? In these cases you might want to talk to someone in the school counseling center. They can help you identify ways to decrease your stress level.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep can affect the levels of hormones ghrelin and leptin which help to control your hunger and fullness feelings. If you’re lacking sleep you may feel more hungry or have a harder time feeling full even if your body doesn’t necessarily need the extra energy from food.
Remember to eat balanced meals that include lean protein, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Watch your portion sizes and eat until you are comfortably full, but not stuffed. If you are still concerned about your weight, you can always contact a registered dietitian to help design a healthy weight management program that’s right for you. Staying physically active will help you maintain your weight, increase your energy level, and help reduce stress.