Psh, fifteen?! Those are rookie numbers.
The “Freshman 15” is a rite of passage for first-year college students everywhere, sandwiched between alcohol-fueled nights, bottomless meals at on-campus dining halls, frat parties, and homecoming football games.
(Oh, yeah, and “education.”)
The good news is that the freshman 15 (in the most literal sense) isn’t a reality for most college students. But that doesn’t make these 13+ statistics any less alarming.
Table of Contents
- Between 25% and 60% of Freshman Experience Gain Weight
- Amount of Weight Gained Varies Over Time Period
- What Causes the Freshman 15?
Between 25% and 60% of Freshman Experience Gain Weight
- College freshmen gain 5.5x more weight than the rest of the population.
- Two-thirds of college frosh will gain weight during their first year.
- Nearly a quarter of freshmen (23%) will pack on the Freshman 5% — gaining 5% of their body weight (or more) during their first few semesters.
- Seven in ten college students will graduate heavier than they started.
College Students Aren’t Just Packing on the Pounds…
… (dramatic cliff-hanger) Like the rest of the American population, each new graduating class is also becoming more overweight and obese.
But, then again, those same 18-year-old newcomers aren’t exactly stepping foot on campus at a healthy weight before falling into the booze-filled or greasy vices of traditional college life.
In fact, obesity rates in high school stood at 15.5% in 2019, with another 16.1% of teen students falling into the overweight category — for a total of 31.6%. So it’s not necessarily a college thing; it’s more like a 21st-century American thing (yay).
Amount of Weight Gained Varies Over Time Period
- Freshies average about 3.3 pounds of weight gain during their fall semester.
- The first three months on campus set the tone for the rest of freshman year, with students averaging four pounds of weight gain in that time period.
- Within the first five months, college freshmen pack on an average of seven pounds.
- The Freshman 15 isn’t always 15; on college campuses, the weight could fluctuate by –5 to 20 pounds within seven months.
- By the time graduation rolls around, the average college student is 12 pounds heavier, though some students will gain up to 37 pounds.
Who Gains More Weight?
- College guys packed on more pounds than girls (3.7 vs. 1.7 pounds).
It’s Really Not That Hard to Gain the Weight
OK, we’ll throw a hypothetical ‘atcha. Say we’re living in an alternate universe where every freshman gaining weight is packing on pure fat — no muscle, bone, water weight, nothing else.
A single pound of fat has about 3,500 calories. So to gain 3.3 pounds of fat in a typical 16-week semester, you’d need to take in 11,550 more calories than your body burns.
Sure, that sounds like a lot … until you realize that in a 112-day semester (including the weekends), 11,550 calories shrinks down to 103 calories per day every day. Half a Mike’s Hard Lemonade, a granola bar, or — hell — an apple could push you over that caloric cliff daily.
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What Causes the Freshman 15?
- Modest weight gain is common in the college years (18–23) when the body finalizes its “set point” — the weight your body naturally strives to maintain.
- The top culprits to blame for the Frosh 15 are night eating, stress, availability of processed foods, alcohol, and social eating.
- Eight out of ten (76%) female first-year students stress-eat, while one-third of their male classmates can say the same.
- All-you-can-eat dining halls (plus unlimited swipes) and limited exercise are the primary reasons college freshmen gain weight.
7 Reasons Behind the First-Year Weight Gain
The first semester of college leaves many unsuspecting freshmen shell-shocked.
For the last six-plus years, they ate pre-portioned and semi-healthy lunches, followed a consistent class schedule, attended their weekly PE courses, suited up for athletic match-ups, and socialized with the same tight-knit friend group they’ve known since elementary school.
Those factors plus these explain the Freshman 15 (or three, or five, or whatever):
- Four in ten college students consider themselves depressed, and academics are the #1 cause of stress for 55% of students. Twenty-seven percent of people lean on food as a coping mechanism, while college campuses are rife with opportunities to all-out binge.
- The average college freshman downs 14 alcoholic beverages per week. If we’re talking about beer alone, that’s an extra 2,156 calories added to the weekly tally.
- On-campus dining halls are notoriously unhealthy. Only 15% of meal options met the American Heart Association’s “healthful” guidelines (i.e., low calories, sodium, and fat). Yet, undergrads prefer the “less healthful” options 85–92% of the time.
- College students tend to stash unhealthy goodies in their dorm rooms as well. In fact, the average on-campus room had 47 food/drink items totaling 22,888 calories.
- Many colleges offer unlimited “swipes” at on-campus dining halls or all-you-can-eat buffet-style facilities. With a short one-hour window to eat per day and dorm rooms with no kitchen appliances, freshmen are more likely to (over)eat the carb and grease-drenched foods at these dining halls than cook their own healthy alternatives.
- Nearly two-thirds of college students don’t get enough exercise. Even walking a mile per day at a fast pace could help to recalibrate the calories in and out to maintain weight.
- Seventeen percent of students squeeze resistance training into their busy schedules. Increasing muscle will drive the number on the scale and possibly push an otherwise healthy student into overweight territory (which is why BMI is a flawed science).
What Is the Main Cause of the Freshman 15?
The main cause of the Freshman 15 is overeating. Unlimited meal plans, alcoholic beverages (which pack 100+ calories apiece), and greasy carbohydrate-loaded food like pizza and burgers oversaturate the body with calories. College students are also statistically less likely to exercise, creating a surging caloric surplus resulting in weight gain.
Why Is Freshman 15 Not Accurate?
The Freshman 15 is not accurate because the average first-year college student doesn’t gain 15 pounds during their first two semesters. While a slim majority of college students will end freshman year heavier than they started it, the actual increase is closer to 3–5 pounds, debunking the long-held myth.
Alright, so maybe the freshman 15 isn’t real. But the ten-or-so pounds of weight gain between freshman and senior years definitely is.
So how do you avoid becoming a statistic?
- Develop a regular exercise routine, whether you enjoy sports, walking, biking, or circuit training at the on-campus gym.
- Stick to a regular eating schedule and choose more nutritious options.
- Request a dorm suite with a kitchen (or live off-campus) to cook your own healthy dishes instead of relying on-campus dining halls.
- Keep the booze in check (yes, really).
- Manage your stress with healthy coping strategies, seek outside help if you struggle with anxiety or depression, and find a hobby.
But more than anything else, don’t let your fear of the freshman 15 (or five) inspire an obsession with the bathroom scale. Weight gain is natural in your late teens and early twenties, and college is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you deserve to enjoy (within moderation).
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