For decades, college students have talked about the legendary “Freshman 15”—the 15 pounds students supposedly gain during their first year away from home. But is it a real phenomenon or an urban legend? Recent research shows that the actual weight gain during a student’s freshman year is an average of four to seven pounds, according to Lindsay Wilson, MS., RD., LD., with the Division of Housing and Food Service at The University of Texas at Austin.
Myth busted? Not completely. According to an Auburn University study, the weight gain doesn’t end with the freshman year, but continues throughout college (Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, September 2012). The study found that 70 percent of students gained an average of 12 pounds by graduation, and some gained as much as 37 pounds. Not quite the legendary 15 pounds, and not all in the freshman year, but there’s a kernel of truth to the phrase.
Like many things in life, there’s no one glaring reason for college weight gain. “A combination of multiple dietary and lifestyle behaviors contribute to it,”says Wilson. “Probably the most important factor is that freshman year is the first time students are away from home. They don’t have parents preparing meals for them or telling them what they should be eating. Students are now responsible for deciding when, where and how much to eat. That can be a big transition for a lot of students.”
If you’re a parent who has been monitoring your teen’s diet—urging the healthy salads, healthy snacks and low fat choices—your student will now have to make those decisions for herself without coaxing. In addition, says Wilson, this fresh wave of independence arrives just as teens may no longer need as many calories as they have been consuming with impunity.
“Students’bodies are transitioning, and their metabolisms are starting to slow down,”explains Wilson. “They’re getting into adulthood. So it’s finding that balance on what they should be eating and becoming more educated about purchasing their own food and making their own choices in the dining halls.”
The math of calories
With students setting their own schedules, many take up habits that encourage weight gain. According to Wilson, one of the most common is skipping meals, which makes weight gain more likely.
“Breakfast seems to be the most popular meal to skip,”says Wilson, who says she sees more students eating breakfast in the dining hall at the beginning of a semester than at the end of it. But students skip other meals, too. “They may skip lunch or dinner because they are studying,”she explains. “Skipping a meal tends to lead to over-eating later in the day.”
One big culprit in over-eating is portion size. “Students who are gaining weight are generally consuming too many calories, and this can be through over-sized portions,”she says.
Other eating habits that lead to weight gain include snacking too frequently and taking in extra calories in the form of beverages. “A lot of students are consuming liquid calories—through sugar-sweetened beverages, energy drinks, coffee drinks in the mornings and alcohol, as well,”says Wilson. “They don’t understand how those calories add up.”For example, a McCafé®Iced Caramel Mocha has 280 calories, and a Starbucks®Bottled Caramel Frappuccino®has 200. One or two of those a day can add up to far more calories than expected.
The study from Auburn University also attributed the weight gain to late-night snacks—often from vending machines—as well as fattening choices in college cafeterias and a lack of activity.
So what to do if your college student doesn’t want an extra 12 or more pounds to go with that college degree? One of the biggest helps will be to stay active, according to the Auburn study. That can mean walking to class instead of taking the shuttle bus, using stairways instead of elevators, working out at the gym or participating in intramural sports. The Auburn study also advises students to get enough sleep, reporting that sleeping less that six hours a night can affect the hormone levels that control appetite and metabolism.
To avoid the over-eating that can come from skipping meals, Wilson advises that students keep healthy snacks handy in their dorm rooms. “When a student says, ‘I just can’t get up early to eat breakfast,’I recommend that they keep some healthy food options in their room so they can eat a granola bar on the way to class.”The Auburn study also recommends keeping healthy snacks on hand, specifically suggesting fruit, hummus, Greek yogurt and baby carrots.
Wilson also emphasizes the value of nutrition to a student’s academic success. “College is a time when students are using their brains to the fullest, so students need to be aware of what they are putting into their bodies,”she says. “Both the body and the brain require a variety of macronutrients, which include carbohydrates and fats, along with micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals. No one food or food group is going to provide everything they need. The key to a healthy diet is balance and variety.”
At a time when the Mayo Clinic estimates that one-third of those between the ages of 16 and 27 are overweight or obese, a healthy diet—combined with some healthier habits—could mean a leaner college graduate.
Healthy habits on the college campus
- Don’t skip meals.
- Limit snacking between meals.
- Opt for healthy foods when snacking is necessary.
- Avoid sweetened beverages.
- Stay active.
- Get at least 6 hours of sleep.
Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.