How does going off to college cause weight gain

Few college freshmen are prepared for what might happen to their bodies when they leave home to attend college.

Gaining weight your first year of college is more common than it’s unusual. That’s why it’s called the “Freshman 15.” 

There are several obvious weight gaining traps to avoid and a few subtle ways that pounds are added to your freshman frame, but you can escape their negative affect on your body.

1. Freshman meal plan

Many schools insist on all freshmen living in the dorm and buying their food plan – often 20 meals per week. Lots of these schools go overboard when it comes to the food they provide for their students.

The cafeterias feature all-you-can-eat buffets three times a day. It’s not just quantity and variety that lure you into eating more than you need – it’s really tasty food. Even if Mom is a great cook, rarely did she place multiple entrées, sides, and desserts in front of you at a single meal. That is often the reality of the college dining halls.

It takes a plan to get in and out of the cafeteria without over-indulging.

Some cafeteria strategies:

  • Don’t get too hungry. Don’t skip meals.
  • Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruit.
  • Select a starch (potatoes, corn, brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole grain bread or roll) and limit the portion to no more than 1/4 of your plate.
  • Use the last quarter for a lean protein such as poultry, beef, fish or legumes.
  • Use sauces and spreads sparingly.
  • Skip dessert most days.
  • Eat slowly. Sip water in between bites. Put your fork down often.
  • If you’re still hungry for seconds, have more vegetables.

2. Dorm room snacking 

Many freshman lay in a supply of snacks in their dorm room and make sure they’re always well-stocked. Be careful about what you keep in your room for snacking. This can be an area where calories really add up unnoticed, especially if you keep a bag of chips or cookies by your elbow while you study. It’s not just solid food that add calories fast; pay attention to what you’re sipping too.


Some snacking strategies:

  • Stock your mini fridge with nutritious, low-energy density snacks such as fruit, vegetables, low fat cheese, low fat plain or reduced calorie yogurt.
  • Snack on air popped popcorn instead of chips
  • Keep sweets out of your room.
  • Share the treats that come in a “care package” from home with roommates and friends.

3. Don’t forget about liquid calories.

Soft drinks, designer coffee drinks, sports drinks, fruit juices and seemingly good-for-you smoothies can have hundreds, can even have a thousand calories in a single glass.

Liquid calories can add up quickly and unlike the calories that come from solid foods, they may not recognized by the body the same way. Be very careful about what and how much you drink. As much as possible, stick to water.

4. Studying can be fattening

The freshman 15 can be exacerbated by reduced physical activity. Maybe you were involved in a lot of sports in high school, but are not good enough to make the college teams. Try out for the intercollegiate teams.

Maybe you’re overwhelmed by your course load and don’t have the time for the sports you enjoy playing. Moving less without changing how you eat can tip your calorie balance from calories in = calories out (maintain current body weight) to calories in > calories out (gain weight)

Stand instead of sitting whenever you can. Walk instead of standing whenever you can. Take the stairs, walk more and ride less, and choose active entertainment, like dancing, instead of sedentary pursuits such as watching TV.

There is another way studying can cause weight gain.

If you’re up all night cramming for exams or writing papers or fretting over grades on your papers and exams, you’re not getting enough sleep. Research is showing a direct link between sleep deprivation and weight gain.

Not enough sleep messes up some people’s hunger and satisfaction hormones. Ghrelin, the hormone that tells you you’re hungry becomes over active and your body becomes leptin resistant. Leptin is the hormone that tells you to stop eating because you’re full.

Go by how your clothes feel. Instead of constantly jumping on the scale keep a food and activity diary. That will give you a much clearer picture of how well you’re fighting the freshman 15.

The final bit of advice is establish these freshman-15-fighting habits now before you see signs of trouble. It’s easier to establish good habits than to replace bad habits.

Jackie Conn

About Jackie Conn

Jackie Conn is married and has four grown daughters and four grandchildren. She is a Weight Watchers success story. She's a weight loss expert with 25 years of experience guiding women and men to their weight-related goals. Her articles on weight management have been published in health, family and women's magazines. She has been a regular guest on Channel 5 WABI news, FOX network morning program Good Day Maine and 207 on WCSH.