The 'Freshman 15' Means More Than Weight Gain
The stresses of Freshman year can make students turn to food for comfort.
It's difficult to imagine a standard coming-of-age experience
that involves more change, more stress, and more personal challenge than
Freshman year of college.
That food might become a way for many to deal with those
stresses is hardly surprising. Weight gain in the first year of college, often
jokingly referred to as the "Freshman 15" (meaning pounds), is so
common it has become a clichÃ©. The fact that this Freshman weight gain is so
commonplace disguises the fact that it is often a sign of a young person having
difficulty coping with the stresses of a new life.
"Food becomes a way to exert control for many Freshmen when
they feel little control in many areas of their lives," Molly Kimball, a
registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation
in New Orleans, tells WebMD. "I work with young people all the time who
have gotten into poor lifestyle choices and a disordered way of
"These are serious issues," says Carol Holland, DrPH,
an associate professor and a psychologist in the counseling center at Slippery
Rock State College in Pennsylvania, tells WebMD. "Gaining 10 or 15 pounds
isn't always a big deal, but it could be a sign that a young person does not
have the coping skills needed given the stresses [he or she is] under. That's
something parents want to be aware of."
"For many students, college life is starting over from
square one," says Holland, who is also a spokesman for the American College
Counseling Association. "They have all new friends, academic demands,
boy-girl relationships, money worries, and easily available alcohol. They come
in thinking that, 'Oh, it can't be that much different,' but quickly they are
neck deep into a real time of difficult transformation."
Overeating, says Holland, can place all these stresses at a
distance. Socialization is easier when food is around. Calorie-dense alcohol
can stand in for self-confidence. Holland calls this "emotional
"They don't have the support system of friends, family, and
activities that they had in high school, so they use what's available, namely
food, to self-soothe," she adds.
So how can you keep this situational overeating in check?
Get in a regular pattern of eating, Kimball suggests. "Eat
breakfast, lunch, and dinner," she says. "Don't skip meals, and keep a
healthy, satisfying snack on hand [such as] peanut butter, cheese, or fruit to
help with cravings."
Eat things you enjoy, but start to exert some choice, she says.
"Don't let situations force you to eat when you're not hungry. And be
particularly wary of the kind of late-night pizza and junk food binges that are
so common to college life."
See what options you have for eating on campus and try to put
together a healthy food plan that uses what you have around you that is easy
and convenient, she suggests.
Avoid alcohol, Kimball says. "Binge drinking is a big
problem, and kids need to set their own limits and boundaries. Alcohol can be a
huge factor in Freshman weight gain."
Also, don't stop exercising. "Many kids who were active in
sports programs in high school stop exercising altogether. That's
terrible," Holland tells WebMD. "Most schools have some kind of student
sports center, and it is vital to stay out of the habit of driving across
campus to go to class that so many student fall into."