How to Avoid the Freshman 15

General Health

Welcome to college!

Prepare for the time of your life. You're undoubtedly going to undergo a remarkable period of change and growth: after just one year away at school, you'll likely come home matured, smarter, and fatter —

— wait, what?

Sorry, but it's true. You read it correctly. There's a good chance (if you don't take away the info from this article, of course), that you'll return home to Momma with more of you to love.

They call this fascinating phenomenon the "Freshman 15". It's one of America's terrible clichés, but it's so widespread for good reason. The simple fact is that many young adults gain significant weight during their first year in college, returning home the next summer plumper and in the worst physical shape of their lives.

But never fear! It doesn't have to be this way. It is possible to go away to school without gaining weight — or, better yet, return home in the best shape of their lives.

How?! you may ask. Read on, friends. Read on. In this article we tell you exactly how to avoid the freshman 15.

A Time of Rapid Growth: Your Knowledge and Waistline

So the time has come. High school is over, you've been accepted to a college of your choice, and you're eager to begin your adult life. Nice!

happy child clapping

Of course, you've heard horror stories about other people gaining weight their first year away at college, but that won't happen to you. The term "Freshman 15" is like a foreign disease — dangerous and sad but not of immediate importance to you. You've always been athletic, or just naturally skinny regardless of the food you put in your body, or both.

Sadly, it's time to grow up. There's a learning curve to keeping yourself in shape and healthy, and before college many people don't learn how to take care of their own health and physical well-being — and how could they? They are blessed with the speedboat metabolisms of youth. On top of this, they have their parents, coaches, and school administrators to take care of all the "boring" stuff. They are served meals by their parents, who despite a bad rap try to provide their children with a balanced diet, and have schedules so tightly packed with school and extracurricular activities that they couldn't possibly eat enough extra junk to gain weight.

As the great dietician, Shakespeare, once said:

"Some are born fit, some achieve fitness, and some have fitness thrust upon them."

Or something like that.

So, why do college students often seem to swell both in knowledge and in size?

Excellent question! Be sure to keep that curiosity alive in those university lecture halls, when a professor has been droning on for over an hour and the student on your right is playing a game on his phone that looks like the most fun you've ever seen, and the student on your left is nodding off with pathetically hilarious head bobs, with dips perfectly-timed every couple of seconds, as though passionately rocking out to a love ballad.

Why do college students often gain weight?

  1. Freedom

    Most of these students are experiencing their first true taste of complete freedom. Finally they have the freedom to eat anything they want, whenever they want it. Seriously.

    Ice cream for breakfast? You got it!

    Cookies and popsicles for lunch? No problem!

    On second thought &mdash I should probably have something with substance for dinner, to make my mom proud, they think... how about pizza and curly fries as the entree, and as a reward for this well-balance meal, a little sundae for dessert? Great thinking!

    This dramatization may seem laughable (and it is), but unfortunately it's based on the truth: In college you can eat anything you want at any time of the day. If you live in the dormitories (like most college freshman) and have a meal plan to the cafeteria(s), this fact is even more apparent — all that food is just sitting there for the taking! It seems wasteful not to eat as much as possible, right?

    Here is the classic college freshman experience (provided in second-person to place you right in the action):

    You walk into the cafeteria for the first time and all the food is spread out across several long tables, like a medieval feast, some sort of celebration — but no, it's just a normal Wednesday night, and unless the students are feeling festive about the collective weight gains that will eventually occur, there is no celebration.

    You're hesitant at first, like a young deer tip-toeing into an open meadow, furtively looking around for any glances of disapproval or mockery as you load your "salad" with oily dressing, until the carrot strings begin to float, turning it into a type of soup.

    You continue around the buffet, piling on pastas and meats and fried everything, and then make your way to a table in the corner, away from prying and judgmental eyes so you can devour your meal in peace. Then you begin consuming these piles of food and can't help but grin, feeling as though you're getting away with some sort of crime.

    After you finish the "meal" you are experiences a weird combination of sensations: physical pain from the expanding of your stomach, a strange lingering happiness from the pleasure you just experienced, and mild feelings of regret for unknown reasons. To combat the latter, you head over to the dessert buffet.

    This happens every day. Eventually the excitement fades away and it becomes the new normal.

    With this new normal comes fat — not a special, higher-education kind of fat, but the kind that everyone gets when they eat too much unhealthy food. It's the kind that gobs at your lower stomach like a fanny pack, slowly accumulating the results of your poor eating habits.

  2. Inactivity

    College is usually the first time in their young lives that students are no longer physically active. Many high school students play sports or engage in some form of consistent physical activity (i.e. marching band, skateboarding, biking, etc.).

    Once in college, however, they no longer participate in these school sports, which often included team workouts, practices, and games/competitions — all requiring a certain amount of physical activity.

    And let's face it: the college experience requires quite a lot of sitting — while in class, doing homework, studying, etc. And, unfortunately, all of these activities broaden a person's backside nearly as much as his or her mind.

  3. Busyness

    Perhaps the most overused and common excuses for poor diet and health: I'm too busy.

    In a way, this can be partially true — the busyness of academic and collegiate social life can seriously interfere with making quality meals and having any consistent workout schedule.

    In the same way that people with busy schedules tend to fall prey to eating out at fast food restaurants because of their hectic schedules, college students are frequently rushing to class, student activities, and to other social commitments.

    Those who live outside the dorms can't seem to find the time to prepare a healthy meal, and those inside the dorms often have trouble finding the time to stop by a cafeteria, wait in the occasionally long lines, and pick out a balanced meal.

    Simply put, college students are incredibly busy.

  4. Stress

    A simple fact is that college can be one of the most stressful times in your life. Occasionally you will find yourself feeling overwhelmed and totally stressed-out — your classes are hectic, your professors grade too strictly, and if you don't get that 4.0 you won't get that top-tier job and as a result likely fail in all other areas of life.

    In times of great stress, your body craves sweets. You'll notice this while studying for exams — even if you don't usually eat much candy, you'll sudden die for a bar of chocolate. Research has shown that stress increases the intake of foods high in sugar and fat. These "sweets" are literally comfort foods — the endorphin release that results from consuming something so tasty is meant to combat the stresses of studying.

What Steps Can Be Taken to Avoid the Freshman 15?

This brings us to the main point of this article: how to avoid the freshman 15. There are many steps that can be taken to stay healthy while away at college.

how to avoid the freshman 15
  1. Get Involved

    If you aren't one to take the initiate to head to the gym a few times a week, then maybe you need a different strategy.

    Most colleges have hundreds of clubs and intramural sports leagues, for practically every physical activity, including:

    • Basketball
    • Dodgeball
    • Football
    • Softball
    • Ultimate frisbee

    There are hundreds more, and they are always looking for more people to participate. Try to join one (or more!) of them.

    This strategy has multiple benefits. In addition to forcing yourself to get active, joining a club or intramural team will also help you to get out there and meet new people.

    Almost all colleges and universities will have a club/intramural page which lists all the possible clubs or teams you can join. (For an example, check out the club page for the University of Michigan.)

  2. Plan Better

    When you find yourself extremely busy, it's especially important to take the time to better coordinate your schedule. If you're having difficulty making healthy meals every day, or getting to the cafeteria when you need to eat, then make the time. Plan your schedule to allow enough time to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

    If class scheduling restraints deny this, and you find you're skipping meals, then try to talk to someone in the administrative office about it. The college deities have no desire to see their respective college become known for having the most unhealthy students. Surely they want to promote fitness and health, in addition to strong academics, since health is certainly just as crucial to overall well-being (if not more) than securing a comfortable job after graduation.

    If your tight schedule can't be changed for whatever reason, then talk to your professors — surely they don't want students fainting during class from malnutrition and hunger, and would be willing to make arrangements for you, whether that's entering or leaving class a few minutes early or bringing a snack to class.

    The best fix? Find a good protein bar for the walk to class. A protein bar will keep you full, keep the hunger pangs away, and provide a good dose of nutrients until your next meal. Our favorite protein bars are made by Quest Nutrition. They can be found relatively cheap on Amazon.

    An interesting note and just another reason to make more of an effort to eat properly (especially for students): malnutrition and/or a poor diet has been linked to decreased learning ability.

    Make nutrition a priority. It's that important.

  3. Find Your Motivation Key

    A motivation key can be anything that makes it easier to get and maintain the motivation necessary to eat healthy and work out consistently. This key can be anything: a workout buddy, to impress a girl/guy, or a spring break trip you want to get in shape for. It doesn't matter if the reason is superficial (looking good on the beach) or something profound (like living a longer, more fulfilling life). Anything that gets you into a gym or running along the campus trails will work.

    One of our favorite helpers for motivation is to use a pre-workout supplement. Not only does the pre-workout work biologically, increasing your energy and focus, but there's also a mental aspect to it. Once you take your pre-workout (usually an hour or so before) you're committed to working out — not working out would be wasteful.

    In addition to this, a positive cycle ensues: working out after taking a pre-workout makes for a more productive workout, which leads to better results, which makes you enjoy working out more, which makes you want to work out more frequently, and so on.

    One of our favorite pre-workout supplements is Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-workout, which can be found on Amazon. Optimum Nutrition is perhaps the most reputable health supplement brand in the industry.

  4. Learn

    Yes, college is filled with learning. But while in the midst of studying calculus or reading Dante, people often don't make the necessary effort to learn about fitness and proper nutrition.

    It all comes down to what you know: what foods you should or should not eat, how often you should eat and how much, and which types of food you should avoid like the plague.

    Ultimately, eating healthily comes down to two main factors:

    1. Self-control

    2. Knowledge

    The first is fickle, influenced by hundreds of constantly changing factors. The next is completely within your control.

    The good news: Both can be improved. Unhealthy people, for the most part, don't know what's unhealthy or why it's unhealthy. To know the difference between healthy and unhealthy takes an understanding of what goes into each — namely, knowledge.

    To learn about health takes time and effort. This article on how to avoid the freshman 15 is a good start, but you shouldn't stop here. Keep expanding your knowledge about health and fitness and you will reap the benefits for the rest of your life.