A huge fear of college freshmen, especially women, is the “Freshman 15,” the mythical average weight gain during the freshman year.
This is the cause of a great deal of self-induced misery, fear of food, body preoccupation and hours of over-exercise. At its worst, severe food restriction results in bingeing, diet-binge cycles, purging or life-threatening anorexia.
What is tragic is that there is no Freshman 15. It is an urban legend, a college bogeyman repeated year after year for decades. Little scientific evidence exists to substantiate or rebut this commonly held belief. The few studies who have examined weight gain among freshman college students are equivocal.
However, a recent study of 137 freshman women at the University of Oklahoma did show an average weight gain of 2.4 pounds. Hardly the 15 pounds of legend that, research suggests, drives many freshmen to panic around food, obsess about weight and categorize themselves as overweight and ugly.
Here are some ways to have a healthy, successful year and to avoid the Freshman 2:
1. Take a food plan to college, not a diet. With so many changes in your life, it is not the time to try to lose weight. Have a plan that enables a healthy, enjoyable relationship with food.
2. Eat intuitively. Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are mildly full. Period. This is difficult at college where there is a lot of recreational eating and a lot of eating to medicate stress. It is worth the effort.
3. Eat mindfully. Enjoy every bite. Use your senses. Avoid unconscious eating.
4. Move your body. Enjoyably. Keep up a similar activity level to high school.
5. Stop comparing your body. Do not create a daily mandatory beauty contest in your head. Your college awards diplomas, not tiaras. There is nothing constructive about comparing your buttocks to every other pair in the room.
6. If you have an active eating disorder, stay home. Take a deferment for a semester to enter recovery. Any addiction in college is a setup to crash and burn. Most colleges would prefer you take time off and return when you are not a liability. If your eating disorder escalates — and it likely will — you may be asked to leave school. If you are already struggling with food and body image issues, ask for a deferment, stay home, get treatment and start college when you are at full strength mentally, emotionally and physically.
7. If you are already at school with eating or body image issues, put up a safety net fast. Meet regularly with a registered dietitian who has eating disorder experience. The dietitian can be your food coach. Your college has a free counseling center. Do not isolate and try to go it alone. Addictions love that.
8. Enjoy your only freshman year. You needn't worry about the “Freshman 2” if you remember to listen to your body, feed it intuitively and move it enjoyably.