Opinion | 5 reasons you shouldn’t worry about the freshman 15

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

The biggest fear weighing upon some college first-years is the fear of weight gain.

The freshman 15, or the phrase that has seemingly horrified many first-year students into believing they’re bound to gain 15 pounds, was first coined on a cover of Seventeen Magazine in 1989. The term bounced around in different publications for years afterward, though comprehensive studies show that there isn’t really any scientific evidence backing the freshman 15 claim.

The fear and stigma around the term can be harmful for first-year students, especially when there’s so much “information” all over the internet about how to avoid the freshman 15, all of it contradictory. These are five reasons why you shouldn’t worry about the freshman 15.

  1. Most college students don’t actually gain 15 pounds

While it’s true that first-year students sometimes do gain weight, it’s usually only about three pounds, a 2011 Ohio State University study found. The average adult’s weight fluctuates five to six pounds a day, depending on what they eat or drink and how much they have slept or exercised. Since three pounds falls within the fluctuation range, it is not even statistically significant.

Your weight changes day to day. It’s more important to form healthy habits, like exercising a few times a week, eating vegetables, getting adequate sleep and perhaps even prioritizing a nap.

  1. It’s normal to gain weight as you get older

The same Ohio State University study, which sampled 7,418 people between the ages of 17 and 20, concluded that first-year-aged non-college attendees gained a similar amount of weight as college students. This finding suggests that first-year weight gain has less to do with being in college and more to do with human biology.

Even though we may not grow taller in college, our bodies aren’t fully developed yet in other ways, which means that weight gain is not only inevitable, but often necessary in order for our bodies to carry out functions efficiently. It’s also normal for females to experience hormone and metabolic changes in their early 20s, which can lead to weight fluctuation. Dr. Maria Sophocles emphasizes that this is totally normal in an interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Weight normally continues to increase annually in your 20s, mostly due to an increase in body fat compared to teen years,” Sophocles says.

  1. Giving your weight too much energy can put your mental health at risk, which is just as important as your physical health

College students have an increased amount of anxiety around weight. While anxiety itself has numerous adverse effects, the initial fears can trigger predisposed mental illnesses, like eating disorders. Between the stress of falling into a productive school routine and living away from home, combined with the stress of weight gain, college campuses incubate eating disorders at an alarming rate, explains Dr. Douglas Bunnell, clinical director of an eating disorder treatment center in New York.

“If you have a heavy dose of anxiety and you’re in a social environment, and you’re constantly exposed to the thin body ideal, that’s a perfect storm convergence of factors that can drive a vulnerable individual into an eating disorder,” Bunnell writes.

Eating disorders are rampant on college campuses, and the prime time for development is between the ages of 18 and 21, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Of course, there are other factors that play into the development of the mental illness, but coming to campus preoccupied with the freshman 15 certainly isn’t going to help.

Ultimately, whether anxiety around weight gain develops into an eating disorder or not, it’s still harmful to your mental health. And mental health also has a direct impact on physical health, according to research conducted at the Mental Health Institute. In other words, fixation on weight gain can be harmful to your body, which is just as important to take care of as your mind.

  1. It steals joy

While there are countless benefits to exercise — like boosted immunity, better sleep and increased memory — it shouldn’t always be the first priority. Students who come into college preoccupied with the looming threat of the freshman 15 often find themselves prioritizing exercise over a night out with friends or a fun meal away from the dining hall. I can attest that this isn’t worth it.

The same goes for skipping out on events with delicious food or any other weight-management behaviors that students may feel obligated to engage in. When I look back on my first year of college, I don’t remember the time that I spent working out at the gym, but I do remember the time that I spent hanging out with my friends. Balance is key.

  1. You need to worry about other things

College is hard enough. Between getting adequate sleep, studying for difficult exams, managing student finances and living on your own, being hyperfocused on food and weight will hog unnecessary mental space. The less things that we prioritize, the more successful and productive we are in our school lives and work lives. Not worrying so much about weight gain, which studies show is fairly usual, will likely benefit all areas of your life.

And ultimately, if you really are concerned about your health or well-being, Pitt provides free resources to any student who has paid the student health fee. The Student Health Center has a dietitian that conducts individual appointments as well as group programs.

This isn’t to say that you should throw your health on the backburner and completely ignore your body — that can be just as detrimental as hyperfocusing on weight. Your goal should be to find a balance. You shouldn’t ruin your first year of college worrying about the freshman 15, especially when there really isn’t evidence to support it in the first place.

Leah Mensch is the opinions editor. She writes mostly about sustainability and social issues. Write to Leah at [email protected].