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.