The tendency for students to gain weight in their first year of college is well known — the infamous “freshman 15.” Many young students worry about this “milestone,” in addition to other typical college worries, such as liking your roommate, making new friends, figuring out how to do laundry and learning how to properly manage your time. The good thing though, is that gaining weight isn’t a required prerequisite for college. Unlike some of the other concerns you may have, this one is completely in your hands!
It’s important to know that the “freshman 15” is a bit of a myth. The results of research looking at this phenomenon varies. However, a meta-analysis of several different studies that was performed in 2008 found only an average weight gain of 3.86 pounds. A second meta-analysis published in BMC Obesity in 2015 found similar results. Average weight gain was around 3 pounds over an average of 5 months. The study also found that over half of students gained weight during their first year of school.
Causes of Weight Gain in College
There are many reasons why so many young men and women gain weight when they enter college.
Alcohol: Let’s face it; alcohol can sometimes play a large role in college life. Aside from the dangers of over-using alcohol, drinking is pretty calorie intensive. A single beer is usually between 100 and 150 calories. Those fancy cocktails can easily set you back a few hundred calories. That’s per drink. Have two, or three, or four and the calorie count really adds up. Be mindful of what and how often you drink to help minimize how many calories and sugars you take in.
Stress: For most college students, this is their first time living away from home. That is a huge adjustment! Learning how to do laundry, navigate your food plan, figure out time management and study skills can all be really stressful. Not to mention the fact that you may be doing all this by yourself. Living with high stress levels can lead to emotional eating and other unhealthy habits. Regular exercise and getting enough sleep can help reduce stress levels. Making time for fun and relaxation, and staying connected with friends and family can also help you deal with stress.
Poor food choices: Living on your own for the first time can also lead to making some poor nutritional choices. Let’s face it: most young teens or young adults aren’t mindful about the amount of vegetables or lean proteins that they eat, especially without mom or dad reminding them to eat their veggies. The college meal plan may not offer the healthiest food, and there’s a tendency to eat out quite a bit. Those meals eaten out may not be nutrient dense.
Lack of exercise: Time management is a very common struggle among college students. Learning how to juggle classes, extracurricular activities, plus routine things like laundry, cleaning, cooking/eating and study time can be tough. Quite often, exercise is the first thing to go. Add in a sedentary lifestyle associated with sitting in class and studying and it’s easy to see how physical fitness suffers.
Snacks: What else is there to do during all that study time? Snacks! With an abundance of unhealthy junk food available and no one to tell you otherwise, it’s easy to get caught up in a habit of eating way too much junk, especially when studying or hanging out with friends. And let’s face it; most times college students aren’t snacking on bell pepper strips with humus. High calorie and high fat snacks are the norm, which can easily add up over the long-run.
Poor sleep: How many times have you pulled an all-nighter to prepare for an exam or catch up on homework? Between those late night study sessions and weekend nights out, your sleep can — and will — suffer. Poor sleep doesn’t just make you feel tired; studies have shown that chronic lack of sleep is associated with changes in the hormones that make you feel full and can eventually lead to weight gain.
Weight Loss For College Students
Having an idea of what causes weight gain in college students makes it easy to see some strategies you can use to both lose weight and prevent gaining the “freshman 15.”
Make healthy food choices
The biggest thing you can do is watch what you eat, because it’s very easy for high calorie snacks, meals and beverages to add up.
Eat more fiber: Aim for foods that are high in fiber. Fiber keeps you feeling full so you are less likely to binge on unhealthy snacks. It can also help you keep your weight in check. Foods that are high in fiber are fruits and vegetables, such as pears, avocado and brussels sprouts.
Reduce added sugar and simple carbohydrates: Foods that are high in added sugars are linked with the development of diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndromes. They also tend to be high in empty calories, meaning that they don’t provide any nutritional benefit.
Limit high calorie drinks: It’s important to not only watch what you eat, but also what you drink. Sweetened coffee drinks, alcohols or juices are hidden sources of calories and sugar, and should be eliminated if possible.
Watch your portions: Keep an eye on portion sizes. For example, the portion size of peanut butter is around 2 tablespoons for about 180-190 calories. If you don’t measure out the intended portion, it’s very easy to overeat and take in way more calories than you meant.
Sometimes, it can be hard to make healthier food choices while living in a dorm and eating at the dining hall. But you do have options. Hit up the salad bar, ask for steamed veggies instead of fries, or opt for a grilled chicken sandwich without the bun.
You can also consider cooking for yourself. Before you say that there’s nothing healthy you can cook in a microwave; you actually have many options. You can heat up a bag of frozen vegetables or a can of soup. You can even microwave an egg for a quick and easy breakfast. Simply coat the inside of a microwave-safe mug with oil or cooking spray. Add two eggs with two tablespoons of milk and beat until well combined. Microwave for 45 seconds; stir and microwave another 30-45 minutes until set. You can add cheese or herbs for additional flavor. Keep healthy snacks stashed in your dorm room so that you aren’t tempted by the vending machine.
If the plan is to go out to eat with friends, eat a healthy dinner or snack before you leave. This helps you feel full so that you eat less junk food.
If you need help with healthy meal planning, check in with your health center for a referral to a nutritionist. The staff at the health center may even be able to help you directly.
Increasing your water intake not only keeps you hydrated, but it can also help you feel fuller so you snack less. You’ll also need to increase your water intake if you are drinking a lot of caffeinated drinks or alcohol, or eating salty snacks. Aim for 6-8, 8-ounce cups a day, more if the weather is hot or you are very active. Keeping a water bottle with you helps you remember to drink throughout the day. If you aren’t a fan of plain water, try a calorie-free seltzer or sparkling water or plain water infused with fresh herbs, vegetables, and/or fruits.
Fit in exercise
If you are struggling with fitting in time to work out, make a few changes in your daily schedule to be more active. Try walking to class or around campus instead of taking a shuttle or driving. You can also take a physical education class each semester so you know you have a set time each week to exercise. Finally, it can be fun to bond with friends while being active. Try planning a hike, or find an intramural sport to play.
Try to prioritize some time each day to go to the gym or workout. Most college campuses have fitness facilities that their students can use without charge. Instead of focusing completely on cardio training (like running or elliptical), make sure to add in strength training workouts to build up muscle strength. If you don’t have time to hit the gym, there are many effective workouts that you can do from the comfort of your own dorm room. The best thing about these workout plans is that they don’t usually require any equipment, other than a set of dumbbells and/or a yoga mat.
Get enough sleep
The great thing about college is that, for the most part, you can plan your own schedule. Not a morning person? Try scheduling all your classes a little later in the day. Falling asleep by 9pm? Plan for morning classes.
No matter how you put together your schedule, make sure to prioritize getting a good night sleep as much as it is possible. Try to do a little studying each day so that you don’t have to pull an all-nighter before a big test.
Use a fitness tracker
Fitness trackers are a great tool for helping you stay healthy and accountable. They keep track of your activity level and many of them even have a platform where you can track what you eat. Looking at the data throughout the day can help you see where you should make improvements. Only at a few hundred steps? Make a concerted effort to walk more that day by taking a walk on your lunch break or walking back home.
Weight Loss for Teens
Teens face many of the same issues with their weight as college students. What’s especially difficult for teens is that they don’t have the same level of freedom in managing and preventing weight gain. Most teens are not responsible for preparing their own food, and may not have access to a fitness center to workout. However, there are things that teens can do to lose weight.
Talk to your parents or guardian: It’s important to get your parents/guardian on board with your weight loss goals. They can help you implement a healthy plan to help you reach your goals. For example, they can buy healthier snacks and prepare more nutritious meals each day. Your parents/guardian can also help you access more support, such as a fitness center or Registered Dietitian.
Learn to cook: This is a great opportunity to start learning how to prepare your own food. Research some healthy simple recipes and start making your own breakfasts or lunches. Your parents can help you with some simple ideas, or there are some great cookbooks available for beginner cooks. In addition to letting you take control of your weight, it’s a great life skill to learn!
Be active: This doesn’t mean that you need to go to a gym. Instead, try join a sport at your local high school or community center. You can also find friends that are also active: go skateboarding, ride your bike or join a dance team. If this isn’t an option, find easy body weight workouts you can do at home.
Smart snacking: Instead of reaching for the chips or ice cream, grab some fruits or vegetables, or another healthy option. Try string cheese, low fat yogurt, unsweetened/unsalted nuts, or And/or plain air-popped popcorn.
Limit screen time: While screens have their place, especially for homework, try to avoid using them excessively. Find something active to do instead of watching TV or playing on your computer.
Get support: It’s important for teens—and their parents—to get support along the way. Whether you need medical help to lose weight, or emotional support to deal with bullying or trouble at school, there is a lot of help available. Talk to your parents, school guidance counselor or doctor to get more information about your options.
The Bottom Line
Teens and college students face unique challenges when it comes to losing weight. However, there are many strategies that teens and young adults can use to help them achieve their goals. Making positive lifestyle changes not only helps with weight loss but leads to health benefits that can last a lifetime. Be sure to consult your healthcare provider before beginning a weight-loss program.
Vella-Zarb RA, and Elgar FJ. The ‘freshman 5’: A meta-analysis of weight gain in the freshman year of college. Sep-Oct 2009. The Journal of American College Health. 58 (2): 161-6. Doi: 10.1080/07448480903221392.
Vadeboncoeur C, Townsend N, Foster C. A meta-analysis of weight gain in first year university students: Is freshman 15 a myth? May 28, 2015. BMC Obesity. 2: 22. Doi: 10.1186/s40608-015-0051-7
Hensrud, Donald, M.D. Is too little sleep a cause of weight gain? April 16, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/sleep-and-weight-gain/faq-20058198
Alexandre, Misato. December 29, 2015. How to lose weight in college: 21 ways to do it. Retrieved from http://www.fitwirr.com/health/tips/how-lose-weight-college
Mayo Clinic Staff. November 27, 2014. Teen weight loss: Healthy habits count. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teen-weight-loss/art-20045224
About the Author:
The team at Medifast California
The team at Medifast California is committed to practicing what they preach. Experts in nutrition, health, counseling and exercise, they have the experience and tools to offer the support you need when you need it!