As a new school year starts up, tens of thousands of freshmen are hitting college campuses for the very first time. While the first semester out of the nest can be thrilling, it can also lead to rapid weight gain. Read on to learn what causes the "Freshman Fifteen" and how packing on the pounds can be prevented.
There are multiple factors that can contribute to weight gain in college freshmen, but psychologist Kimber Shelton, who spent eight years working in University Counseling Centers, lists stress as the top cause. “As exciting as freshman year is, it can also be very stressful,” she explains. “When stressed, the body produces more of the hormone cortisol, which helps to regulate bodily functions. However, chronic production of cortisol is associated with increased blood sugar and obesity.”
Of course, cortisol isn’t the only culprit for weight gain. When paired with stress, increased availability of food—especially junk food—and alcohol creates a cyclical cocktail for weight gain. Shelton notes: “Some [students] may turn to emotional eating and alcohol to cope with stress. Food (particularly fatty and sugary foods) and alcohol can produce a temporary high and distraction from stress, yet may contribute to overall weight gain, [creating a cycle] in which weight now becomes an additional stressor.”
So how can incoming freshmen make a smooth transition while avoiding weight gain? Let’s ask an upperclassman! Henna Hundal, a Harvard junior and certified yoga instructor, notes that a good workout plan, quality sleep, and a productive social life are all key to keeping stress levels low and weight in check: “First, the development of a realistic workout plan is extremely important to maintaining good health. The physical activity dissipates pent-up stress [and allows] for a mental reset as well. In conjunction, it is important for college freshmen to develop a consistent and regular sleep schedule, which allows them to wake up refreshed, with the energy to face the challenges of the academic year. Finally, it is important for students to socialize in productive ways, finding healthy extracurricular outlets—which can include club activities, outdoor activities, and exploring the college’s surrounding area—rather than participating in extreme leisure-time behaviors such as binge-drinking or drug use.”
Additionally, it’s a good idea for incoming freshmen to arrive on campus with a few stress management strategies packed in their suitcase. “Some students think college will be a ‘fresh start,’ in which problems from high school and home won’t follow them,” Shelton explains. “The unfortunate reality for many is that stressors not only continue in college, they may intensify. If students had poor eating habits, ineffective study strategies, and social issues in high school, these issues may exacerbate in college, making these students more susceptible to stress and weight gain.”
Because of this, students should enter college with expectations of a higher-stress environment: “Students who are surprised to find that college is harder than high school will likely be ill-equipped in dealing with stress and can internalize that their high stress level is indicative of personal inadequacy. [On the other hand,] students who enter college knowing it will be challenging will not be surprised when their stress levels rise, and will be less likely to contribute difficulties to personal inadequacy. [These students] can more quickly move to healthy stress management strategies.”
Along with the advice to get active, Shelton emphasizes the value of seeking counseling when the semester feels too intense to handle healthily. “Our mental health and physical health are directly connected,” she advises. So don’t be afraid to use the school counseling center to help you develop strategies for dealing for stress and “decrease the reliance on unhealthy strategies, such as emotional eating, alcohol use, and oversleeping.”
If you’re nervous that you or someone you know is in danger of packing on the “freshman fifteen,” don’t panic. Instead, focus on sleeping well, exercising, and avoiding binge eating and drinking. Remember, you have four years to sample the dining hall wares, so take your time and enjoy your experience in a smart, healthy manner.