Weighing in on the ‘freshman 15’

Living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t always come easy for college students

Va Yang, article author, headshot
Va Yang, St. Paul High School
Zaid Khan, article author, headshot
Zaid Khan, Anoka High School

JOHNNY MCGIBBON, a senior at the University of St. Thomas, wants to eat healthier, but he says he can’t.

“I live in an upperclassmen dorm that doesn’t have a kitchen. For me, that feels like I’ve gone back 20 steps,” said McGibbon, who is also a peer educator for the St. Paul university’s Health and Wellness Promotion Team. “So I don’t have fresh produce I can store. So now it’s going back to what’s convenient – what can I make in two minutes in a microwave?”

Studies show that the “freshman 15” is a myth, but there is plenty of truth to college weight gain and the difficulties of living a healthy lifestyle in college.

The “freshman 15” commonly describes the weight gain of U.S. students in their first year of college. Originally, the phrase was the “freshman 10,” coined by the New York Times in 1981. It was later altered to “freshman 15” to accommodate America’s increasing weight, according to The Atlantic.

Therese Coughlan, article author, headshot
Therese Coughlan
Johnny McGibbon, article author, headshot
Johnny McGibbon

Students gaining approximately 12 pounds during four years of college is more realistic than gaining 15 in the first year alone, according to a 2012 study at Auburn University in Alabama.

“There are plenty of interesting articles out there that looked at studies across long periods of time,” said Dr. Katherine Lust, a nutritionist and the director of research at the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service. “What they find is that it is more the norm that first-year students will gain about five pounds.”

Why do college freshmen gain weight? According to Lust, many students are on their own for the first time and have to make nutritional and healthy lifestyle decisions without parental input.

“You don’t have your parents saying ‘eat your vegetables,’ so when you get on a college campus, all of a sudden you have even more choices,”

she said.

“So you have decisions about what you eat and when you eat it. You have [to make a] decision about how much you sleep, which can affect your weight,” Lust added. “You have [to make a] decision about how much activity and exercise you engage in. You have choices of whether you want to consume alcohol or not.”

According to kidshealth.org, having a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep are ways that college students can curb weight gain. The website also states students should watch their alcohol and nicotine consumption. Alcohol adds calories and smoking makes physical exercise more difficult, according to the website.

Gender also plays a role in weight gain. Men are more likely to gain weight in the first year of college than women, according to the National Institute of Health. A study also pointed out that men were less concerned and had fewer strategies for weight control than women.

Therese Coughlan, also a senior and peer educator at St. Thomas, said living a healthy lifestyle in college is easier said than done.

“To be healthy is more expensive and, at times, commitment is more difficult,” she said.

Students may find it helpful to talk to their doctors or to the school health center for advice. But some college students say school administrators need to meet them halfway and have resources available for students wishing to live a healthier lifestyle.

McGibbon said it comes down to

a 50-50 effort from the school and the individual students in order to create a healthy lifestyle on campus.

To promote healthy living on campus, McGibbon’s health promotion team hosts the Wellness 5K Run/Walk down Summit Avenue in St. Paul each year. The 5K, which is open to St. Thomas students, faculty, staff and alumni, is one example of how students and administrators can collaborate.

“It’s a team thing between students and the administration,” he said.

Lust agreed, emphasizing the long-term benefits.

“If we can learn to make good choices as a young person,” she said, “then we can make good choices as we grow older.”