Ask the Dietitian: What is the best way for college students to prevent the Freshman 15?

September 15, 2016

Q: What is the best way for college students to prevent the “Freshman 15?”

A: Ain’t no such thing.

“Freshman 15” is a catchy phrase that was probably created to sell magazines. A meta-analysis of 22 studies including more than 5500 participants showed that college students gained an average of only 3 pounds. That’s a normal and expected weight gain for a student in his or her late teens. We measure growth in kids and teens on growth curves. Check out this chart (right). Do you see the cluster of curved lines on the bottom half of the image? That’s weight change over time, for girls from age 2 to 20 years old. The lines curve up gently to the right because we expect a bit of weight gain between ages 18-20. The gain is normal, NOT a reason to panic.

For college students, a far bigger concern than weight gain is the risk of developing disordered eating. Ninety-five percent of people with eating disorders are between ages 12 and 25. Body dissatisfaction, which is socially acceptable in many college communities--even here at UC Berkeley-- is the best-known contributor to eating disorders. Research studies and my own informal surveys of student groups on our campus confirm that a large percentage of students are dissatisfied with their weight or shape, and many admit to engaging in disordered behaviors, such as skipping meals, taking diet pills, or purging, in an effort to lose weight. 

This continuum shows how preoccupation with food and body image can progress into a full-blown disorder. As a member of the UHS Eating Disorder team, I hear heartbreaking stories of struggle with food and body hate on a daily basis. So I say: let’s ditch the catchy headlines, delete the calorie-counting apps from our phones, and practice healthy habits that will help us thrive in the long term. 

Stay tuned for more Ask the Dietitian articles in future issues of the UHS student newsletter. Find out more about Toby’s services here