College brings many life changes that most young adults are excited about: moving away from home, becoming more independent, pursuing a passion and making new friends. But one of the things on most freshmen's minds is the dreadful "Freshman 15"—the weight new college students allegedly gain during their first year of college.
First, the good news: Those notorious extra pounds are a mere myth! A 2011 study published in Social Science Quarterly showed that the typical weight gain during the first year of college is just 2.5 to 3.5 pounds and has little to do with higher learning and more to do with becoming a young adult (commence awkward flashback to health class about your "changing body" here). The not so good news: About 10 percent of freshmen will gain 15 pounds or more during their first year. And that's just the first year. Experts aren't as concerned about these actual pounds as they are about the rate at which students put them on. A 2008 study found that college students gain weight six times faster than the general population. And according to researchers, young adults continue to gain weight (1.5 pounds per year on average) during the four years after they graduate, too. Not all of this can be chalked up to "growing up," though. If left unchecked, the weight gain many experience as young adults can become a serious problem.
So what causes young people to gain weight rapidly when they enter college and the working world? No study has offered conclusive proof, but the authors point to several likely culprits.
1. A change in eating habits. It's no secret that your eating habits can change dramatically when you leave home and have total control over what, when and how much you eat every day. Suddenly, there's no parent to make sure you're eating your vegetables. There are late-night study sessions that can lead to pizza binges. On top of that, "use it or lose it" meal cards and all-you-can-eat dining halls often encourage you to eat more than you should. But there are lots of ways to eat healthy on campus even if you don't have a kitchen. If you didn't leave high school health class with a full understanding of proper nutrition and healthy cooking, you're not alone. Make up for what you missed by educating yourself on nutrition here at SparkPeople, starting with this beginner's guide to healthy eating.
2. A change in exercise habits. You might have been on one or more sports teams in high school or been in the habit of walking or biking around town to see friends. The demands of college life, including part-time work, can make it difficult to find time for exercise when required sports practices or P.E. classes are no longer on your daily schedule. All that walking around campus may seem like a lot of exercise, but may not add up as much as you think. The 2012 National College Health Assessment showed that less than half of college students get the recommended amount of aerobic exercise each week. You may need to find new ways to include fitness in your day like these simple dorm room workout ideas. And remember that even if you're time-crunched, short workouts do offer major benefits for your health and your waistline. If you can get in the habit of exercising regularly in college, it will serve you for years to come. Life will always be busy and stressful, but a consistent fitness habit will help you stay in shape—and might even earn you a higher salary once you've earned your diploma.
3. An increase in alcohol consumption. Most people reach the legal drinking age during their college years, and many college students start drinking as soon as they move away from home. More than 50 percent of participants in the 2012 National College Health Assessment admitted to consuming five or more drinks in one sitting (considered to be binge drinking) at least once during the previous two weeks. This level of drinking can definitely lead to weight gain; it can contribute to a host of other legal, safety, health and academic problems as well. While there are proven health benefits to occasional, moderate alcohol consumption, overdoing it can easily lead to trouble.
4. A decrease in sleep. The 2012 National College Health Assessment showed that less than 11 percent of students reported getting enough sleep during the week, while more than half reported feeling tired most days. Whether you pull an all-nighter to study for a big exam or to go out partying with your friends, the negative results will be the same: Lack of sleep is correlated with weight gain due to hormonal changes, increased appetite and increased calorie consumption. A study published in a 2013 issue of the journal Sleep showed that restricting sleep in subjects led them to consume an extra 500 calories the next day. Poor sleep habits have been shown to have negative effects on weight in other ways, too. It's not always easy to get all the sleep you need while pursuing good grades and having a social life, but listening to your body can help. If you are tired, head home early or take a power nap. If you just pulled an all-nighter, just say no to tomorrow's party invite. It's all about balance. And when you know you're going to be up late, watch what you eat (and drink) during those extra wakeful hours and the following days.
So, although it's safe to say that the dreaded "Freshman 15" myth has been put to rest, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be concerned with your weight when you go to college or move out on your own. Just make sure that you keep an eye on your habits and try to be proactive about your health. If you notice you're not getting the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, for example, you can focus on making better choices in that area. If you find that school or work is keeping you sedentary most of the day, focus on ways to increase your activity and make active dates with your friends or significant other, like going for walks or trying an intramural sport. Making healthy choices when you're starting out will lead to good habits that will help you maintain your weight throughout your life.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "Weight Gain at College," www.eatright.org, accessed on July 19, 2013.
American College Health Association, "National College Health Assessment 2012," www.acha-ncha.org, accessed on July 19, 2013.
Laura Girz, Janet Polivy, Veronique Provencher, Maxine Gallander Wintre, Michael W. Pratt, S. Mark Pancer, Shelly Birnie-Lefcovitch, Gerald R. Adams. "The four undergraduate years. Changes in weight, eating attitudes, and depression." Appetite, Volume 69, 1 October 2013, Pages 145-150.
Nicole L. Mihalopoulos, MD, MPH, Peggy Auinger, MS, and Jonathan D. Klein, MD, MPH. "The Freshman 15: Is It Real?" Journal of American College Health. 2008;(56)5:531-533.
Spaeth AM; Dinges DF; Goel N. "Effects of experimental sleep restriction on weight gain, caloric intake, and meal timing in healthy adults." SLEEP 2013;36(7):981-990.
Zagorsky, J. L. and Smith, P. K. (2011), "The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or Media Myth?" Social Science Quarterly, 92: 1389–1407.