The term “freshman 15” is commonly used in America to describe the weight students tend to gain during their freshman year in college, which is believed to be around 15 pounds (7 kg).
While first-year college students might not gain exactly 15 pounds (7 kg), studies show that most college students gain some weight during their first year.
For example, in a review of 32 studies, researchers found that more than 60% of college students gained an average of 7.5 pounds (3.5 kg) during their freshman year (
That’s a faster pace of weight gain than in the rest of the population (
This weight gain may not be surprising, considering that college is a big lifestyle shift for students. It also tends to be the first time many students make all their own decisions around eating and exercise (
“Freshman 15” is a term used for the weight students tend to gain in their first year in college. While it may not be exactly 15 pounds (7 kg), studies suggest most students gain some weight in their first year.
There are many reasons college students may gain weight during their first year.
The following information explains some — but not all — of the common reasons for gaining weight.
Eating in dorms and at social events
In the United States, most students move onto their school’s campus, where they have prepaid meal plans for the duration of the semester.
Since cooking in the dorms is hard and sometimes impossible if you don’t have access to kitchen facilities, meal plans are typically your best bet.
With meal plans, you typically have to swipe your student ID or prepaid meal card to access the cafeteria, where you can fill your tray with what you’d like to eat.
Although many campus menus offer healthy options, it can be tempting to go for less healthy processed foods, especially when people around you may be eating those less healthy foods or when you’ve had a long, stressful day of studying and activities (
It may also be harder to control portion sizes when food is served in an “all you can eat” format, which could contribute to greater calorie intake that leads to weight gain.
College also involves a lot of social events put on by various clubs, organizations, and dorms. They tend to include food, and the options are often limited to takeout foods such as pizza.
One study of 756 first-year college students found that after starting college, students who lived on campus generally ate fewer healthy food options such as fruits, veggies, and dairy products (
Eating late at night
Calories don’t count more significantly when consumed at night. However, studies show that late eaters tend to eat more calories overall.
In one study, researchers found that people who ate between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. consumed around 500 more calories per day and gained about 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg) more per year than people who ate only during daylight hours (
One reason for this may be that people who commonly eat late at night tend to go for more convenient, less healthy, high calorie foods since it may be harder to make healthy food choices late at night.
This may be especially true when you’re on campus with limited food options outside of the dining hall.
On top of this, studies suggest that up to 60% of college students find themselves sleep-deprived for various reasons, such as studying late (
Stress and emotional eating
The college experience can be both exciting and stressful.
Many students may find themselves stressed with the pressure to do well on exams, balance their studies with social life, and cope with the financial burden of student loans.
Plus, many people find themselves seeking comfort in food during stressful times. At those times, they may tend to eat highly palatable, less nutritious foods that are high in sugar and fat, such as ice cream, chocolate, lollipops, and potato chips (
Increased alcohol intake
College is the period of life when many people start drinking alcohol.
While the occasional drink likely won’t contribute to much weight gain, heavy drinking during your freshman year can quickly rack up excess calories.
Studies estimate that more than 30% of American college students drink heavily, with more than 42% of students reporting one or more episodes of heavy drinking in a month (defined as more than five standard drinks for men and four for women) (
Consuming alcohol frequently can quickly increase your calorie intake and lead to weight gain, as alcohol itself provides 7 calories per gram. Also, alcoholic drinks may contain additional calories from carbohydrates and fat, depending on the mixers used.
Aside from simply increasing your calorie intake, alcohol can affect your weight in other ways.
When you drink alcohol, your body prefers to metabolize it before carbs or fat, which means calories from those nutrients may be more likely to be stored as fat (
Additionally, studies suggest not only that alcohol can increase your appetite but also that when you’re intoxicated, you have decreased inhibitions around food. This may mean you’re more likely to choose less nutritious, high fat, high salt foods (
On top of this, college students tend to engage in more sedentary activities, such as sitting down for long periods. An analysis of 125 studies in students found that students on average sit for more than 7 hours per day (
Sitting for long periods means you burn fewer calories over the course of the day, which can lead to weight gain — especially if you’re eating the same way you did when you were more active, such as in high school.
Studies have also linked more sedentary behavior to a number of negative health outcomes as well as increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress, which are not good for overall well-being (
There are various causes for weight gain during the freshman year, such as eating in dorms, social events, eating late at night, stress and emotional eating, increased alcohol intake, and decreased physical activity.
While gaining weight in college may seem unavoidable, there are plenty of things you can do to help prevent it and keep yourself feeling better in the long run.
Below are some tips to help you manage your weight in college.
To begin with, it’s a good idea to make an effort to stay active during your time in college.
Try to find activities you enjoy and schedule regular exercise into your weekly routine. You could try jogging, following a YouTube workout, lifting weights, or joining a group fitness class.
Increasing your daily activity doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to the gym or exercise more. Simple things like walking to your classes or taking the stairs instead of elevators can make a difference in the long run.
Prepare healthy snacks
If you tend to study late at night and need snacks to stay focused, prepare some healthy snacks beforehand that will keep you focused, curb your appetite, and help you stay away from less nutritious, higher calorie fare.
It’s also a good idea to stock some healthy snacks in your dorm room to reduce the urge to eat processed foods when hunger or cravings hit.
Here are some great healthy and convenient snack options you can keep in your room:
- Berries. Berries are great to have on hand, as they’re low in calories but high in nutrients and antioxidants.
- Nuts. Nuts are a great snack, high in heart-healthy fats and protein.
- Nut and dried fruit bars. Snack bars with dried fruits and nuts are extremely portable and pack high amounts of protein, fiber, and calories.
- Apple or banana slices with nut butter. Fruit with nut butter is a great satisfying snack that combines healthy carbs with sources of healthy fat and protein.
- Carrot or celery sticks with hummus. This is a low calorie snack that’s high in fiber and nutrients.
- Plain air-popped popcorn. Air-popped popcorn is a low calorie snack that packs a high amount of fiber, which can help keep your digestion regular.
- Jerky. Jerky can be a handy and filling snack to keep in your room. It’s high in protein, but be mindful of portion sizes since it can also contain high amounts of salt.
It’s also a good idea to cut back on sugary drinks and alcohol. They’re generally high in empty calories and lacking in nutrients, and they don’t curb your appetite the same way whole foods do (
Fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods
When it comes to navigating the dining hall, start by filling your plate with plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains such as brown rice, and a source of lean protein like fish, chicken, or beans.
Filling your plate with more healthy nutrient-dense foods like these will leave less room for unhealthy items.
Building a balanced plate with a combination of fiber-rich whole grains, colorful produce, and lean protein will also help you stay fuller longer, give you the energy to power through a long day of classes and studying, and help prevent unwanted weight gain.
Manage your stress levels
Stress can be difficult to manage and can affect your weight and mental health.
There are many approaches to stress management, so it’s a good idea to take some time to figure out which healthy ways to manage stress work best for you.
Some great ways to help relieve stress include:
- spending time outdoors
- going for a walk in the park or a hike outdoors
- practicing breathing exercises
- doing yoga
- listening to music you enjoy
- seeking meaningful social connection
If you’re having trouble finding a healthy way to manage stress, consider seeking help from a mental health counselor at your college.
You can do many things to avoid weight gain, such as finding ways to stay active, keeping nutritious snacks on hand, choosing healthier options from the cafeteria, and finding healthy ways to manage stress.