Expert Q&A: Avoiding the Freshman 15

An interview with Connie Diekman, MEd, RD

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 25, 2008
5 min read

The dreaded freshman 15. You likely remember this phenomenon from your own coed years. You may even be living through it -- or trying to avoid it -- right now. So you know it is more than just an urban myth: College students do tend to pack on the pounds during their first year at school for a host of reasons from late-night eating fests, all-you-can-eat dining halls, lack of exercise, and alcohol use/abuse.

To find put more about this phenomenon as well as how to avoid the dreaded freshman 15, WebMD spoke with Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, LD, FADA, the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis and a past president of the American Dietetic Association. Here's what she had to say.

The freshman 15 is a legend in college history. It refers to weight gain that college freshmen tend to gain during their first year at college. Most freshmen do not gain the dreaded 15 pounds. Fifteen pounds is more of an average, which means a lot of freshmen are gaining more and a lot are gaining less.

Coming to college is a big change for young adults. They are confronted with food any hour of the day and there is no one telling them what or when to eat. They have to learn to choose both what and when to eat for themselves and they are also going to a schedule where no one tells them what to do, so they may forget to exercise. College is about the time where young women switch to an adult female metabolism, so they may not be able to eat as much as they used to and still keep their weight stable.

As kids move through their college years, they learn how to schedule themselves so they understand when and what to eat even though food is available all the time and their weight levels off. By the time most females reach senior year, they have cycled to the weight they were when they entered college. Boys don’t physically mature until later, so they tend to weigh more when they graduate college than they did when they started as freshman.

Eating snacks or mini-meals after every three or four hours can help avoid bingeing. The challenge is really learning how to incorporate healthy eating and exercise into a schedule that is very demanding. I remind students that this is not too different from the life they will graduate into, so they should learn now how to make it a part of what they do now.

As you go into the dining facility, take a look at what’s there. Don’t jump immediately into the salad bar line. There may be healthier options such as fresh vegetables or whole-grain pasta. Once you have made your decision, you are in control. Think about how much cheese, meat, beans, nuts, or salad dressing that you take. Choose more vegetables and less of those things. A dinner plate should comprise two-thirds fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This is a good way to build a healthy meal. Also, ask questions in the dining facility such as ‘how is that prepared?’ or ‘can I get this without butter?’ If a service-line person can’t help you, find out who can.

If you order pizza late-night, get a salad too so that you can control the number of slices you eat. Participate with friends, don’t isolate; because isolation leads to disordered eating. When you restrict what you eat during the day to allow yourself to drink at night, alcohol affects you more quickly. When alcohol has a rapid affect, it drops your blood sugar and triggers the need to eat and alcohol also lowers your inhibitions. You can end up eating as many calories -- if not more -- than you would have if you ate throughout the day and still had a drink at night. Eat during the day if you are planning to drink, so you don’t drink too much or eat too much.

Weight gain is an individual issue. Our genetics determine how we gain, where we gain, and when we gain. Most students find they have some ups and downs with their weight while at college.

The environment of watching people eat and seeing people eat as much as they want and not gain a pound can make it difficult to put “healthy eating” into perspective for college students. We end up with weight gain. Some students handle this well and others will resort to disordered eating such as fad diets, restriction, and sometimes it moves on to eating disorders.

Kids are not getting the nutritional education that they need to arm themselves for college. My recommendation to schools and parents is to talk more about healthy eating in high school and middle school. We need to teach kids about the importance of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy food. We need to teach them what they should eat, not what they should not eat. College kids also spend a lot of time on the Web. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Go to reputable sites for good nutritional information, and do not believe the fast, quick, and easy way to drop 5 pounds. Also find out what services are available on campus, such as a dietitian or health and wellness center that can help develop healthy eating strategies.

I did not gain the freshman 15. I was -- and still am -- blessed with genes that burn pretty well. I have a good metabolism. That is really important.