The ‘Freshman 15’ Is a Dangerous Myth

Helena V Berbie

From the application process to move-in day protocols, starting college during a pandemic looks pretty different. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the looming fear of the “freshman 15.” Anxiety about college weight gain – almost its own rite of passage – may be even more intense this year as COVID-19 drags on.

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The pandemic has complicated people’s relationship with food and heightened worries about health and fitness. Many of us have found much-needed comfort in food, especially while we’ve been stuck at home. Others have developed disordered eating and exercise patterns, as the stressors and events of the past year have disrupted our routines and even our views of the world.

Fears about gaining the “quarantine 15,” combined with social isolation, have contributed to a sharp rise in clinical eating disorders, especially among adolescents. In the midst of these complex feelings surrounding food and fitness, a generation of young people are heading off to college this fall with an intense fear of gaining weight – the infamous freshman 15.

Myths About the ‘Freshman 15’

Here’s what you need to know: Popular concerns about the freshman 15 are based on fear, not fact. Knowing the research can help you tune out the noise of this persistent myth so you get the most out of the wonderful adventure that is college.

Most people gain no more than a few pounds their freshman year of college.

Some weight gain is typical as young adults embark on college life. However, research suggests the average amount of weight gained is around 2 to 5 pounds, only slightly more than peers who aren’t attending college. And remember, there is no one-size-fits-all rule that says what your body should do when you get to college.

The Effects of Diet Culture

We live in a culture that idolizes thinness and demonizes weight gain. Keep in mind that diet companies comprise a multi-billion dollar industry that profits off of people’s insecurities about their bodies and their hopes of losing weight or avoiding weight gain.

This highly lucrative industry has a vested interest in perpetuating fat phobia and making you feel generally inadequate about your appearance. Catchy slogans boost the anti-fat message and help it stick – but just because something rhymes (like “quarantine 15”) or has alliteration (“freshman 15”) doesn’t make it true.

Young Bodies Are Still Growing

College students may no longer be kids anymore, but their bodies are still developing.

Although young women may be somewhat more concerned with their weight in general and more apt to fear the freshman 15, at least one study suggests young men are more likely to gain weight during college than women, in large part because they’re often still gaining height. Boys tend to start puberty later than girls and many continue growing taller (thus weighing more) into their late teen years.

Keep in mind that even for students – of any gender – who are done growing in height, the body is still adding bone mass, muscle and fat needed for this next season of life.

Changes in Weight Are Normal – During College and Beyond

Weight changes during college are normal because bodies change. Yes, even in adulthood.

In addition to being a major life transition, college often catalyzes changes in eating and activity patterns. Unfamiliar foods, buffet-style cafeterias and disrupted sleeping schedules can affect the ways students are eating.

If you were an athlete in high school and aren’t continuing your sport in college, your daily activity may have decreased. For some students, walking to classes (as much as several miles a day at some campuses) greatly increases physical activity.

Some people will gain weight, and some will lose weight at various points in adulthood – when they start a new job, move, get married, have children or during other transitions.

Even positive changes can be stressors, and our bodies sometimes change as our surroundings and circumstances change. Instead of fearing weight gain and restricting ourselves from certain foods, it is beneficial to accept and appreciate that our bodies’ needs are not the same at all stages of our lives.

Dieting Is Never the Answer

It may be tempting, if you notice changes in your body, to try to exert control over what you eat. Dieting is never a good idea. Not only does research unequivocally suggest that dieting is more likely to lead to weight gain over time than weight loss, it also disrupts your ability to attend to your body’s physiological cues of hunger and satiety.

Still tempted to try your roommate’s fad diet or “healthy lifestyle” plan?

Know that dieting isn’t harmless. In addition to perpetuating body shame, dieting can lead to disordered behaviors– such as skipping meals, avoidance of entire food groups and binge eating – and can lead to serious, clinical eating disorders.

Eating disorders often arise during life transitions (college certainly counts!), and the most common age of onset of eating disorders seems to be the late teens. In other words, starting college means you are already more vulnerable to eating disorders, and dieting only increases the risk. Jumping on the diet bandwagon could seriously harm your health – and disrupt your college plans.

Yes, weight fluctuations are normal throughout life. But it’s important to know that weight loss from any cause – whether from dieting, illness, stress or other factors – can trigger an eating disorder.

In other words, you don’t have to be intentionally trying to lose weight to end up developing eating disorder symptoms. Being under-nourished can throw off your relationship with food and affect your mood and thought processes. With all the attention laser-focused on fear of weight gain, too many young people suffer from an eating disorder without anyone noticing – and they may even receive praise for their behaviors.

Worried About Gaining Weight? How to Get Support:

If you’re starting college this fall and still have concerns about weight – even if you know you don’t want to diet – this transition could be the perfect time to get support.

You can curate your social media feed to limit exposure to weight-loss content and replace it with information from anti-diet and body liberation activists.

Learning about Health at Every Size® can give you the tools to swim upstream when there is pressure to engage in food restriction or negative self-talk. Many colleges offer classes and counseling in intuitive eating, a non-diet approach to nourishing yourself. Campus mental health services are there to provide support if you’re struggling with your relationship with food or your body.

In many ways, college is the beginning of your adult life. In addition to earning your degree, you have the opportunity to learn how to take care of your unique self. Nurturing both your psychological and physical health now will help you get the most out of your college experience and serve you well for years to come.

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