Your 15 Pounds of Fame
The 'Freshman 15' may be a myth, but college dining habits can still get out of control
By Rachel Stern
The dining hall, for many college freshman, is an ubiquitous food wonderland: Frozen yogurt dispensers, pepperoni pizza and french fries, oh my! But many frosh--armed with all-you-can-eat meal plans--struggle with enjoying their food while avoiding the dreaded "Freshman 15."
Coined by the Chicago Tribune back in 1985, the witty alliteration became the notorious name for the weight-gain that numerous freshmen pack on during their first year of college.
Zoe Byers* gained 35 pounds during her first two quarters at UC-Santa Cruz: "It was like the Freshman 15 times two," she laughs.
"Everyone went to the dining hall all of the time," the current college senior recalls. "It was sort of the social center for everything. I felt like I couldn't do much about it. There's not much to do on campus besides hang out."
Byers, who'd managed to watch her weight throughout high school, also found that the academic rigor of her classes made her turn more to food for its comfort factor. "As a freshman, it was such a different work environment for me," says Byers, who lost most of the weight she put on as a freshman by "discovering" the gym during her sophomore year. "As an upperclassman, I had more of an idea how to control my lifestyle."
According to Sheri Sobin, a patient care coordinator at the UC-Santa Cruz Health Center, weight gain as high as Byer's is unusual; the Freshman 15, she says, is "pretty much a myth."
The fact is that people ages 18 to 19 tend to gain weight anyways, says Sobin. The ability to do so is heightened in college freshman due to more food--much of which is fried and full of fat and sugar--being available, along with less exercise and missed meals, many which are made up for with late-night, often unhealthy snacking.
Since students commonly sleep in more due to later class schedules and end up missing dining hall hours, they'll often opt for an "11am fast food with a low nutritional value," she says of the ubiquitous muffins, which can contain upward of 20 grams of fat.
Too much snacking and too few full meals has become an issue for some students not yet accustomed to being in complete control of their own food choices.
Daniel Reti, a Cabrillo College freshman living away from home for the first time, has formed admittedly less healthy eating habits in the midst of a new class schedule and housing environment.
"I snack more because no one's making my meals for me," he says. "It's easier to snack instead. Sometimes I just don't have time to eat [a full meal]."
A study at Cornell University found that students gained an average of 4 pounds during their first 12 weeks of college-- a rate that's 11 times higher than the typical weight gain of 17- and 18-year-olds.
Still, not everybody is destined to gain the full 15 pounds, according to a study of weight and body changes of 67 Rutgers College freshmen published in the Journal of American College Health. Sixty-three percent of frosh gained weight, 13 percent stayed the same and 24 percent lost weight. Nobody, however, put on 15 pounds; the average gain was in fact 3.6 pounds.
Daniel J. Hoffman, the nutritional sciences professor who conducted the study, stressed in the results that one individual college sampling--especially one so small in size--cannot be a completely accurate indicator of freshman weight gain. Still, other studies gathered similar results.
A multiyear study by researchers at Tufts University found that women gain an average of 4.5 pounds during their first year of college, while men pack on 6 pounds.
For some, the weight gain may not be such a bad thing after all.
"I'm concerned about weight gain going to college, but only because I want to gain weight," said Roger Simmons*, an incoming UCSC freshman. "I'm rather thin and play sports a lot, so I'm really looking forward to studying, playing, eating and lifting at the gym."
According to a study in the 2005 American Journal of Health Psychology, worry of weight gain is more common in college women. One to 3 percent of college women have diagnosable eating disorders, it states, but many more--ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent--face a risk of developing ones due to factors such as chronic dieting, most commonly in the form of skipping breakfast.
"The fear of the Freshman 15 tends to promote eating disorders," says Sobin.
For students concerned about their weight or eating habits, the UCSC Counseling Department offers an "Eating Awareness Group." The Health Center also offers private sessions with the faculty's part-time nutritionist.
In an effort to guide students to better health, Princeton University sophomore Daphne Oz--who actually lost 15 pounds during her freshman year--penned The Dorm Room Diet, a book that was published Sept. 6, to help students manage their weight. Her tips include substituting healthy choices for not-so-healthy ones and having a pre-party snack so one doesn't go overboard with snacking. Her "everything in moderation" motto even applies to beer, which you'll be glad to know has an average of 150 calories a serving.
Sobin had a few more suggestions to offer students worried that not all of their first year growth will be academic.
First and foremost, she says, it's important that students get regular exercise. Many students have a more sedate lifestyle in college than they did in high school, especially as many give up the sports they once played. One can stay active by registering in physical education classes, hitting the gym, or--for UCSC students--just walking around campus instead of relying on the shuttle.
If you get late-night cravings for food, try healthier snacks like fresh fruits, veggies, string cheese and yogurt--which, for dorm dwellers, can be kept in a mini refrigerator.
Eating three square meals a day will prevent overeating when dinnertime rolls around. Since your metabolism slows down when you don't eat during the day, stuffing yourself buffet-style at night is a key tactic for gaining weight. Drinking water before every meal--which fills people up--further reduces dining hall gluttony.
Sleep, says Sobin, is an underappreciated factor in eating healthier, as more shuteye generally leads to less stress and increases your ability to remain conscious of your food choices. To get more sleep, she recommends that students ditch the caffeine in the evening and don't take too many naps during the day.
Of course, she adds, these habits will carry far beyond freshman year.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.