The Freshmen 15 - Myth or Real Weight Gain?

Between the first and last days of a college freshman’s first year at school, something happens to many students’ waistlines. They get bigger. The phenomenon is commonly known as the “Freshman 15,” referring to pounds gained quickly by some young men and women.

While the oft-cited 15-pounds gain may be part legend and part fact, it’s true many students no longer fit into their skinny jeans at the start of their sophomore year. Natural growth is the culprit for some; poor diets and a lack of exercise are the causes for many others. 

“You can’t do much about natural growth, adding muscle and bone, but you can eat better and build some physical activity in your college routine,” says Michael D. Warren, MD, MPH, FAAP, TDH director of Family Health and Wellness. “Many people eat when they’re stressed, and there’s no question the first year away from home can have its emotional challenges. But stress eating alone can’t be blamed; at some point you have face the facts:  extra-large pizzas at midnight, cream-filled donuts for breakfast, keg parties Saturday nights and extended couch time afternoons may have something to do with the bigger numbers on the bathroom scales.”

It doesn’t take a math major to calculate what it takes to add on pounds; the standard formula is one pound equals 3,500 calories. A recent study in which freshmen students gained four pounds in 12 weeks found the students were only eating an average of 174 extra calories per day.  Cutting out one can of soda or one small snack could have kept them at their previous weight.

While exercise may be a dreaded word for some, you don’t have to pump iron or run marathons to burn calories. For example, a person who weighs 155 pounds burns about 280 calories leisurely riding a bike (about ten miles per hour) for one hour. Double your speed and you burn more than 800 calories in an hour. On many college campuses, it’s easy to accumulate an hour’s time pedaling between the dorm and classes. 

“Students should also remember weight gain doesn’t only affect wardrobes,” says TDH Commissioner John J. Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Additional pounds increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, musculoskeletal problems and other potentially devastating health problems. Students who are heavier may also deal with additional social and emotional issues affecting their physical and mental health. Study after study shows regular physical activity improves concentration, sleep quality and academic performance, all essential ingredients for maximizing you educational investment.”

The TDH Nutrition and Wellness office suggests the following 15 weight prevention tips for students to avoid “Freshman 15” issues:

 

  1. Eat a healthy breakfast. It speeds up metabolism and gets your body burning calories.
  2. Focus on fruits and vegetables, then add dairy and meat products to your meals.
  3. Try to eat three meals each day at approximately the same time. 
  4. Eat healthy snacks in between meals (fruit, yogurt, energy bars, etc.) to keep metabolism high.
  5. Control portions. Avoid all-you-can-eat buffets.
  6. Avoid alcohol. It is loaded with empty calories.
  7. Shop when you are full, not when you are hungry. You tend to buy more unhealthy, high-calorie foods when you are hungry.
  8. Build fun activities that involve physical movement into your daily routine.
  9. Try to get 30 minutes each day of aerobic exercise (jogging, swimming, etc.). 
  10. Try to add muscle-building exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, weight training, etc.) into your workouts each week. Muscles increase your metabolism.
  11. Join an intramural sports team.
  12. Use the campus fitness facility.
  13. Drink more water and avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.
  14. If you know you are going to be eating a lot at a party, eat fewer calories during the day.
  15. Avoid vending machines.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. For more information about TDH services and programs, visit http://health.state.tn.us/.

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