It seems all graduating high school seniors know about the freshman 15. You may have heard about this infamous 15 pound weight gain from your friends, the media, maybe even a nutrition class in school. It’s time to set the record straight and stop perpetuating this myth.
The freshman 15 is not real. It’s #fakenews. Graduation season click-bait.
Here’s what you need to know:
The first year of college is a common time for weight change
It is true that some young men and women do gain weight freshman year. Current North American studies suggest the average gain is 7.5 pounds, with only 10 percent of students gaining 15 pounds or more. Studies also suggest weight gain is not really a spike in the first year, but a slow accumulation of weight during the college experience and after graduation. Finally, the risk of weight gain seems higher in men than women.
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Often not discussed is that the same stress and expectations that can make one individual gain weight, can trigger the opposite effect in others. In fact, 15 percent of students actually lose weight during the first year. This timing correlates with peak disordered eating behaviors at 18-21 years of life. Strict dieting and unhealthy food relationships can lead to significant, unhealthy weight loss. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of casual college dieters will develop a full-blown eating disorder.
These studies matter because it helps us re-frame what is normal. As we head off to college, it’s important to know what our healthy long-term weight actually is. From that target weight range, it is easier to appreciate natural fluctuations in weight that occur as part of our life experience, and to choose healthy means of weight loss or gain if we notice a significant change to our target goal.
If you do gain weight, it's not just the beer
Although it’s easy to give the finger wag to high-calorie alcoholic drinks, moderate drinking in college is not associated with weight gain. Important note: Drinking alcohol in college is associated with other significant problems. Before you choose to drink, read up on your risks. It is true that many alcoholic beverages are high-calorie; but so are sodas, juices, and fancy coffee drinks. Weight gain can come from drinking too many calories, regardless of what type of drink it may be.
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In addition to simple liquid calories, researchers have suggested many other reasons for college weight gain. Lack of parental oversight to food choices; cheap, high-calorie foods due to a limited budget; late night eating; moving away from routine athletics; side effects of drugs and alcohol (munchies, hangovers); cheap food availability; decreased quality college cafeteria foods; chronic stress; less sleep.
In short, the entire college experience.
Ultimately, there are not any “tricks” to maintaining your healthy goal weight. Remember that a lifetime of small decisions matter. Consistency and common sense over the long-term is what will contribute to success. Some weight-healthy habits include:
- Keeping a routine meal schedule. Limits the need for snacking.
- Eating breakfast every day. Rev up your metabolism.
- Getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation increases our craving for carbs.
- Choosing a variety of foods in moderation. Your plate should be colorful.
- Staying active. Don’t go 3 days without exercising.
- Stress reduction. Biochemical changes caused by stress foster weight gain.
- Watch the end of semester, where late nights, fast food, increased stress, lack of sleep and lots of snacks combine.
Natasha Burgert, MD, FAAP is a general pediatrician in Kansas City, MO and National Spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.