How to avoid the Freshman 15, and why it gets packed on in the first place

August 10 2007

In high school, Stefanie Baker played on the softball team, took step aerobics classes several times a week, and ate three squares a day.

In college, all that changed. By the end of her first year at Indiana State University, easy access to food and little to no physical activity had taken its toll.

“I didn’t just gain the freshman 15, I gained the freshman 20,” said Baker, a native of Shelbyville. “My clothes weren’t fitting me anymore and I was unhappy with the shape I was in.”

Although recent research places the amount of weight gained by first-year college students at a little lower than 15 pounds �-- closer to 7 or 8 -- the concept of the “freshman 15” is not a myth, but an unpleasant reality for a great number of young adults like Baker, says Jeff Tincher, assistant professor of physical education at Indiana State.

“One of the reasons for freshman weight gain is the kind of food they eat,” Tincher said. “Without mom’s input and supervision, they probably go for the quickest and easiest things they can find to eat, and these are usually filled with lots of calories.”

The majority of college freshman are living on their own for the first time, and the excitement of this new-found freedom is often exhibited in poor choices, Tincher says.

“Their time management skills aren’t the greatest, staying up until all hours of the night to study and do homework,” Tincher said, “and continuing to eat at times that they would normally be sleeping. This results in the consumption of more calories than they took in while living at home, and as a result, they gain weight.”

Alcohol also may be a factor in weight gain, according to Sarah Hawkins, registered dietitian and professor of family and consumer sciences at Indiana State.

“Increased alcohol consumption may be a major contributor, because alcohol does have more calories per gram than any other nutrient besides fat,” Hawkins said. “The easy access to vending machines and late night pizza orders do their share too.”

Another theory to explain college weight gain is that students skip meals during the day and then think they can eat whatever and as much as they want in the evening, says Rao Ivaturi, board-certified nutrition specialist and associate professor of family and consumer sciences at Indiana State.

“If someone consumes 1,500 calories in the form of four meals distributed throughout the day, their insulin level stays regular and fat is burned as they go along their daily activities,” Ivaturi said. “If, however, they stay up late and sleep in, skipping breakfast, and then only have a little lunch, by the time they get to supper, they are starving, and this is literally the message that the body has received throughout the day.

“So when one large meal is finally consumed, the insulin level spikes, making it much more difficult to use those calories because the body wants to store the food as fat, because it doesn’t know when it’s going to get fed again.”

Men are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to the freshman 15, Ivaturi says.

“Research has shown that, on average, men gain slightly more weight than women during their freshman year of college,” he said. “Researchers haven’t figured out yet why this is, but it possibly could be due to the fact that women, in general, keep a closer eye on their weight than men do.”

Baker, who is now a senior majoring in human development and family studies, says too much access to unhealthy food was her downfall.

“Food is available 24-7 in college,” Baker said. “In high school, you’re in class all day and you get one meal during that time �" lunch. There’s no time to snack in between. But at college, you can eat as much as you want in the cafeteria, and there are vending machines in every building. If we were bored, or studying or up late at night, we’d just eat.”

When sophomore year began, Baker decided to make a change.

“I was unhappy with the additional weight I’d put on, so I set a weight-loss goal for myself for every two weeks,” she said.

Baker surfed the university’s Web site and discovered free exercise classes for students through the department of recreational sports.

“I started going to step aerobics classes again, and added weight training,” Baker said. “I ate healthier. I cut down on the size of my meals and the number of times I would eat. I also traded in cookies and chips for things like baby carrots and fruit.”

For those new to choosing and providing their own meals, Hawkins affirms what should already be common knowledge �" avoid fast food.

“High-fat foods are the most concentrated sources of calories, and fast food, or any fried foods, have lots of fats,” Hawkins said. “Soft drinks contribute lots of calories too, and people often fail to consider the calories in their beverages.”

Ivaturi also warns against the sugary beverages which are so popular with the college set.

“If it were up to me, I would ban regular soda and sugary drinks because they can be disastrous by causing insulin spikes that can be so harmful in the long run,” Ivaturi said. “If a college student consumes just three cans of regular soda each day, and does not increase their activity level, that can add up to about a pound of fat per week; and most college students consume much more soda than that in a day.”

When faced with cafeteria food, Ivaturi says to eat the fiber-rich foods first.

“Start off with the plant-based foods -- your vegetables and salad -- and the whole-grain dishes,” Ivaturi said. “These are packed with fiber, which will fill you up, but they are low in fat. After that, you can move on to the entrée items, like the fried chicken, if that’s what you want. Because of the fiber you have already eaten, you will get full faster and won’t be able to eat as much of the high-fat items. You also will stay full longer, which will help prevent late-night snacking.”

Tincher says those new to campus life need to stay physically active.

“Join an intramural sports league that you enjoy, check out the weight room and recreational facilities, and incorporate some kind of physical activity into your daily routine,” Tincher said.

Being a college student is almost synonymous with being overbooked. If scheduling time for formal exercise is not possible, Tincher suggests creating spontaneous exercise opportunities throughout the day.

“Instead of driving or taking the bus to a location near campus, ride your bike or walk,” he said. “Take the stairs to your classroom, instead of using the elevator. When you go to the mall, don’t cruise the lot looking for the closest parking space, park way out and walk to the store.”

A great place to track diet (caloric intake) and activity levels (caloric expenditure), according to Tincher, is Type in what you’ve eaten for the day and what you’ve done physically, and the site will break it all down for you.


PHOTOS: Download high-resolution photos here:

Freshman 15 female college student

CAPTION: Many colleges offer free exercise classes for their students. April Philpott, an English education and cross-linguistics major at Indiana State University, takes advantage of a total body conditioning class offered through ISU’s recreational sports. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

Freshman 15 male college student

CAPTION: Research has shown that, on average, men gain slightly more weight than women during their freshman year of college; possibly due to the fact that women, in general, keep a closer eye on their weight than men do, says Rao Ivaturi, associate professor of family and consumer sciences at Indiana State University. Prashant Gurung, a professional aviation flight technology major at Indiana State, works out to keep off the pounds that college life can add. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

CONTACTS: Jeff Tincher, assistant professor of physical education, Indiana State University, (812) 237-2802 or; Rao Ivaturi, associate professor of family and consumer sciences, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3312 or (812) 249-6882 or

WRITER: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or

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Story Highlights

The "Freshman 15" is not a myth -- it is an unpleasant reality for a great number of young adults. Professors in nutrition and physical education/kinesiology explain this phenomena, and give some tips on how students new to college life can avoid this unnecessary rite of passage.

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