Don’t Let the Freshman 15 Hype Harm You

Roommate disputes, all night study sessions, and the Freshman 15: one of these does not belong! (Pic is my Freshman year dorm at Ohio U.)

Which of these are to be expected the first year of college:

  1. roommate battles
  2. all night study sessions
  3. an extra 15 pounds+ around the middle
  4. All of the above
  5. 1 and 2 yet not 3
  6. I plead the fifth since it’s the first week of class

Roommate battles and all nighters are a part of the college experience yet weight gain is not a sure thing. I want to spend a few moments clarifying the Freshman 15 myth.

Yes, it is a myth. Started somewhere around 1985 during our nonfat hysteria. And, just like the kidney heist and other urban legends, it now has a feel of fact when it is not.

Adolescent development includes increases in height and weight with corresponding increased energy needs. For many, there are periods of rapid weight gain prior to the height increases and vice versa. For example, most girls gain 30 to 50 pounds during the 2 years before and after starting menarche. This is to be expected and it is very important. Without it, the girl will have impaired estrogen thus impaired bone health, impacted height, and possibly impacted fertility. Lower estrogen can even affect her mood making her susceptible to feelings of depression. Literally, not gaining enough weight affects her mind and body.

Move in day at my Graduate School, UNCG

Surprising factoid: adolescence is through the age of 23. And, during the last part of puberty (18 to 23 years of age), the average adolescent is supposed to gain 7 to 10 pounds. Let’s put this together: typical adolescent graduates high school and transitions to college somewhere between 17 and 19. Adolescent spends 4ish years there. Is college to blame for a weight change if any? Or even more importantly, why are we punishing the college student’s own biology just trying to do her requirements for adequate development?

This is why I make a stink about this: high school students start worrying about the Freshman 15 somewhere between 10th and 11th grade. Worried and panicked because they think their body will spiral out of their control like it or not and there is nothing to do about it. That is what they hear when they read the media’s Freshman 15 articles. Many start to monitor and restrict their foods in preparation YEARS in advance.

I see more new eating disorder clients during July, August, and September than any of other time of year. This transition to college is a huge change and that alone can place someone at risk for developing a mental health concern. Changes are tough! So, combine this tough change with all the food talk and worry POOF! an eating disorder is born.

Let’s put the Freshman 15 panic aside where it belongs. Panic promotes impulsive choices that can often do more harm than good. Instead, let’s talk about how to maintain mental and physical health while you transition to college:

  • Trust your body. Your body has the knowledge to keep your body promoting health.When you experience physical hunger, eat. When you feel fullness and satisfaction, end the meal. For more on how to do this, look into this.
  • You will experience more symbolic hunger with this transition to college. Symbolic hungers (a term I learned from Dr. Barbara Birsinger RD) are your unmet needs. Notice what you need and explore different ways to meet them.
  • Notice how your body wants to move. College offers more choices in movement and what a great time to try yoga, meditation, rock climbing, or zumba. Check in with what your body enjoys and what helps it feel better (more relaxed or more energized). Cool bonus: great way to meet friends!
  • If you feel yourself craving food outside of hunger, consider it a gentle sign of unmet needs. Cravings need not be ignored or shamed away.

A Woman and her Mandolin’s Simple Empowerment

I am singing her tune! The woman’s plea for the media (and the world): stop minimizing my feelings, my experiences, my being because I am a woman. And, allow me to see size diversity instead of “dolls.”

You gotta check this out. You’ll be tapping your foot to her empowering mandolin tune too. I loved it so much, I just made her an honorary member of my anti-diet militia.

Body love promotes health.

Jess Weiner, body image activist, wrote a recent Glamour Magazine article: Jess Weiner’s Weight Struggle: “Loving My Body Almost Killed Me. Earthquake-like experiences flow through the eating disorder and Health at Every Size (HAES) communities with this courageous article. I am an active member within both communities and reading this article has been like learning Dr. Dean Ornish is now following the Atkins Diet. A body image warrior is on a diet.
Part of the debate focuses on whether Ms. Weiner is focusing on health or weight loss or both. This matters significantly because mindful eating experts value health and health promotion without calorie restriction. Mindful eating, a core principle within HAES, also focuses on behaviors that help a body feel healthier. Weight loss can be a side effect of this yet weight loss is not a behavior. It can’t be predicted and it’s not as important as the behavior change.
Ms. Weiner is honestly talking about both health and weight loss. And, although her experiences are her own, I respectfully (I do own her books!) disagree with some of her assumptions based on her own body loving experiences.
Ms. Weiner describes her body acceptance leading to unhealthy eating and exercise choices with proud permission to do so. Further, I am led to believe that in her description, loving one’s body is mutually exclusive with not choosing health promoting food and movement. 
As a strong proponent of HAES, I’m saddened this article equates self acceptance with promoting unhealthy eating, exercising, and living. That sounds more like a teenager rebelling against an over-controlling parental voice. If you’ve met with me in individually, you may have discussed this exact experience. Many people who’ve experienced disordered eating and/or years of diets will notice this teenage-like rebellion message. It is part of the process of healing. And, when acknowledged and sorted through, it is temporary. It is not HAES or loving one’s body. The rebellious teen voice contributes to another external motivator to eat or exercise. Just like a diet.
Loving one’s body is living in the present with it. Mindfulness allows the body to talk to the mind and vice versa. It is being aware of the conversations between the two and how they influence each other. Loving one’s body using a HAES approach seeks to unite mind and body while calmly, in one’s adult voice, letting the teenager and parent in your brain know they aren’t needed right now. 
I hope Ms. Weiner experiences health while she loves her body. At the same time. Listening for her adult voice, she can experience both.

The big deal about diets.

Can dieting be your daughter’s death sentence?

Think I am overreacting? Maybe. Or, maybe not. Counting calories or points while exercising for the sole intention of weight loss has serious effects on our children. Consider these ideas:

  1. A mother dieting teaches her daughter to not trust her body. A girl comes fully equip with her own personal internal dietitian which communicates via hunger and fullness cues. A mom ignoring her own internal dietitian teaches a young girl to do the same. This may give more business to my colleagues yet sets the daughter up for a lifetime membership in the Chronic Dieters Club. Sadly, this club has only a 3-5% success rate after a year yet immense loyalty.
  2. For many women, dieting is about losing 5 to 10 pounds to fit into skinny jeans and the thin ideal…not about health. From this, weight loss dieting teaches youngsters a big lesson in perfectionism. Dr. Shawn Spurgeon, a previous professor of mine once said: “Perfectionism kills people.” Well said. Perfectionism goes really well with disordered eating practices which can lead to anorexia nervosa: the mental illness with the highest mortality rate.
  3. Using exercise for the intention of weight loss teaches children exercise exists as a means of punishment or to earn our right to eat. Last time I checked, all humans need to eat for fuel. That makes eating a right not a privilege to be earned. Instead of hiking or biking for fun with friends, a girl then learns to get on the hamster wheel at the gym to earn her calories for dinner.

A mother who accepts her body in the present and learns to eat mindfully according to hunger/fullness cues gives her daughter one of the greatest gifts: food and exercise empowerment and freedom.