The Freshman 15 is one of the most feared side effects of a student’s first year of college.
And though studies have found it’s not as bad as it sounds — and that the average weight gain is actually around 2.5 to 3.5 pounds — the threat is still there.
“Visible weight gain is real,” said Joy Bauer, TODAY’s nutritionist, who credits the power of temptation for the belly-bloating phenomenon.
“Bad eating is contagious, and there’s a lot of camaraderie, whether you’re studying or coming home from a party and you have a buzz on,” Bauer said. “Once one person starts with the pizza, chips, candy bars — it’s really difficult to go against the norm. It’s not a peer pressure thing. It’s just hard to keep your resolve up.”
“Physical activity goes down, and pizza might go up.”
At Tulane University, registered dietitian Sarah Walsh counsels students who are looking to escape the slippery slope of pigging out.
“Just going to college, they have all these food availabilities, and especially coming to New Orleans, with such a food culture down here, it’s very easy to gain weight,” she told NBC News.
Even athletes who may have been in top shape in high school can fall victim if they’re not playing sports on campus.
“Physical activity goes down, and pizza might go up,” Walsh said.
But while conventional wisdom says that freshman weight gain can be attributed to all-you-can-eat buffets, sudden freedom from mom’s portioned cooking, and unlimited access to unhealthy snacks, researchers at Cornell University are finding that college may not be to blame at all.
Weight gain, the researcher say, may actually just be a factor of age — and the general overeating we all do, regardless of whether we have a dining-hall swipe card.
“The early studies were claiming that parents were determining what they eat, then they go to college and they determine what they eat, and they’re drinking beer all the time. People actually studied it and it looked like those aren’t the reasons,” said David A. Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences and Department of Psychology. “The reason is that we generally gain weight the older we get. And the most rapid gain in weight without any gain in height occurs between 18 and 30. It actually levels off when you’re about 40. The increase in obesity that we see is the rapid weight gain that occurs after the age of 21.”
Which is not to say that college weight gain — or any weight gain — is inevitable. Our grandparents’ generation, said Levitsky, didn’t see this kind of rapid waistline growth as a sheer factor of age. What’s changed is the fact that we’re eating more than we need to.
The fix? The simple bathroom scale. Levitsky and his colleagues are currently finding that weighing yourself frequently (around four times a week on average) will actually prevent weight gain.
“We’ve actually published data that is showing that if you have freshmen that weigh themselves every day, they don’t gain any weight,” said Levitsky. “Without it, you gain here at Cornell about four to five pounds in the first semester. You have to see the consequence of what you’ve eaten that day to decide what you’re going to do the following day.”
Even more worrying than actual weight gain is the worry of weight gain, which can lead to disordered eating and bad choices like “drunkorexia,” when some college students drink their calories instead of eating.
A study in 2010 found that 14 percent of freshmen at one school reported restricting calories before drinking, and 6 percent of them said they did it to control weight gain.
Walsh counsels her students on how alcohol can wreak havoc on the body.
“A lot of college things revolve around food and alcohol, and I talk a lot about alcohol and how that adds up really quickly,” she said. There’s the bloating from dehydration, and the lowering of inhibitions that makes you “want all the pizza and all the fries.”
Bauer, who has two kids in college, sees an encouraging trend.
"Nowadays, there's so much emphasis on fitness and appearance, that eating well and hitting the gym has become trendy," she said. "Being healthy can be contagious too freshman year."