Diet Myth or Truth: The Freshman 15

Is college weight gain inevitable?

3 min read

For years, incoming college students have been warned about the dreaded "Freshman 15" – the extra 15 pounds that so often accompany the first year at college. But is this a myth or reality?

Truth be told, it's a bit of both. The bad news is that many college freshmen can expect to gain weight. The good news? The gain is generally less than 15 pounds.

Typical weight gain, studies show, is 4-10 pounds during the first year of college. Here are the results of several studies that looked at weight gain among college freshmen:

  • A study at Auburn University found that only 5% of freshmen gained 15 pounds their first year.
  • A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggested that the average female freshman gains 5 pounds in her first year.
  • A study from Utah State University found that 25% of freshmen (both men and women) gained an average of 10 pounds during the first semester.
  • A Rutgers University study found that 75% of study subjects gained weight -- an average of 7 pounds, from eating approximately 112 extra calories per day.
  • Freshmen gained an average of 4.2 pounds during the first 12 weeks of school, according to a Cornell University study.

But even 4 extra pounds can add up. Weight gained during the freshman year can stick around for a student's entire college career – and beyond.

Transitioning to college life is a huge change. Freedom from parental supervision can lead to poor choices in everything from food to sleep, study, and partying habits.

Researchers found the following behaviors, along with the ready availability of unhealthy food, are most likely to contribute to weight gain among college students:

  • Skipping breakfast
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Overdoing all-you-can-eat dining
  • Stress-triggered eating
  • Late-night pizza and other unhealthy snacks
  • Social drinking
  • Lack of control over food preparation and choices
  • Too many high-calorie liquids
  • Too little sleep
  • Eating larger portions

So how can you avoid college weight gain, whether it's the Freshman 15 or the Freshman 4? Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy weight:

  • Don't go to class without eating breakfast (Mom was right!). Skipping meals tends to lead to overeating later the in the day.
  • The variety of food choices on all-you-can-eat buffets can lead to overeating. So make a plan for how you'll navigate the unlimited bounty in the dining hall. Try to make the same kind of healthy choices at school that you ate at home.
  • Learn more about healthy eating. Some universities have registered dietitians on staff that can assist students with healthier meal plans. Or take a nutrition course.
  • Keep track of calories. Some university dining halls post the calorie value of foods, which can help you make wiser food decisions.
  • To keep your appetite in check, start lunch and dinner with a large salad or a bowl of broth-based vegetable soup.
  • Follow the healthy MyPlate equation: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one-quarter with simply prepared lean meat or fish or plant protein (such as beans and legumes), and the last quarter with a whole grain. Next to the plate, include a source of low-fat or fat-free dairy, or a milk alternative.
  • Skip dessert at lunch, and indulge only at dinner with a small portion of a sweet treat.
  • Drink lots of water and other no-calorie beverages.
  • Stock your room with healthy snacks to avoid those late-night pizza runs and vending machine attacks.
  • Watch out for weekends. Try to stick to a schedule of regular eating and physical activity rather than indulging in excess eating and drinking all weekend.
  • Join the university gym, sign up for a fitness class, and walk all around campus.
  • Weigh yourself regularly to keep track of your weight status.

The bottom line is that only you can prevent college weight gain. Start your college career on the right foot with a healthy diet and physical activity every day.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.