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How To Beat Freshman 15 Weight Gain

freshman 15 weight gain

The good news is that the freshman 15, which refers to an average weight gain of 15 pounds among first year college students, is not entirely true. The less than good news is that college freshmen do tend to gain weight during their first year at university, and that could prove to be part of an unhealthy trend as these young adults get older.


Freshman 15 is partly a myth
Since 1985, a variety of studies have shown that the freshman 15 (6.8 kg) actually falls in the range of 2.2 pounds to 13.2 pounds (1 kg to 6 kg). Now a new meta-analysis has examined the phenomenon of freshman 15 again, which is relevant given the growing concerns about overweight and obesity among both young people and adults.

The analysis included 22 studies that involved 5,549 students. Here’s what the authors found:

  • Over an average of 5 months, the mean weight gain was 3 pounds (1.36 kg)
  • 60.9 percent of students gained weight during their freshman year, and the average number of pounds put on was 7.5 (3.38 kg)
  • Students who gained weight did so much faster than seen in the general population

The authors concluded that “Given adolescence weight gain is highly linked to overweight and obesity in adults, the significant weight gain at university needs to be further understood if we are to combat the rising adult obesity prevalence.” They also noted that weight gain during early college years may stick around and be associated with unhealthy habits that may become a permanent part of adulthood.

In another recent study, New Zealand investigators looked at psychological stress and body mass index in relation to the freshman 15. Both of these factors are used to predict weight gain and loss among adults.

Sixty-five freshman were surveyed in March and October of their first academic year. The authors found that:

  • Only 3 students gained 15 pounds (6.8 kg)
  • Overall, students gained 2.6 pounds (1.1. kg)
  • As has been seen in previous studies, students who had a higher body mass index when entering their freshman year gained a greater amount of body weight
  • Students who entered college with high stress levels gained weight if they also had high BMIs, while those with lower BMIs tended to lose weight

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The authors emphasized that “vulnerable students need to be taught stress-reduction techniques and coping strategies early in the academic year.”

How to beat freshman weight gain
One important thing to recognize about freshman 15 weight gain is that it’s often a symptom of stress and/or an inability to cope with the challenges associated with living away from home. Suddenly, young people have to cope with new friends, new living arrangements, new intimate relationships, concerns about finances, and academic demands.

One way to manage these new stressors is through food, including eating mindlessly while studying or using food as comfort from loneliness, feelings of alienation, and anxiety. Ready availability of alcohol also is a factor that can add excess calories and pounds.

Some tips to avoid the freshman 15 (or 7.5) include:

  • Establish a regular eating schedule. It may be necessary to work your meals around your class and any work commitments, but make it a priority to take care of your health
  • Avoid late-night junk food parties or pizza party study sessions.
  • Scope out the food that’s available both on campus and in the immediate area and make a plan so you always have access to healthy food choices
  • Keep nutritious, reasonable calorie snacks readily available so you aren’t tempted to binge on bags of potato chips, candy, or those noodles-in-a-cup, which are packed with calories and salt. Fresh fruit, dried seaweed, certain fresh veggies, air-popped corn, and raw nuts are some convenient choices.
  • Network with other students who are also interested in eating healthy. You might share an investment in a small dorm-size refrigerator and keep healthy snacks on hand.
  • Don’t forget to exercise. Along with healthy food, a regular exercise program is essential to keeping off unwanted pounds. Take advantage of any fitness facilities on campus and/or get together with friends for regular sessions of tennis, jogging, basketball, etc.
  • Watch any alcohol intake. It can be easy to “let go” and drink to excess, which is harmful not only for weight gain but your mental, emotional, and academic well-being as well

Boyce JA, Kuijer RG. Perceived stress and freshman weight change: the moderating role of baseline body mass index. Physiology & Behavior 2015 Feb; 139:491-96
Vadeboncoeur C et al. A meta-analysis of weight gain in first year university students: is freshman 15 a myth? BMC Obesity 2015 May 28: 2:22

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