Weighty Words on the Freshman 15

With school back in session, and some older children going away to private boarding schools and colleges for the first time rather than staying at home, parents have been feeding me lots of questions about whether or not the “Freshman 15” is a reality.  Well, let me help you digest some information on this topic.

The Freshman 15 refers to recent studies suggesting that first year students (or freshmen) who live in dormitories and dine on school or college meal plans that offer all-you-can-eat cafeteria-style meals will be prone to putting on about 15 pounds of additional weight their first semester away from home.  Actually, the studies suggest most students only gain three to ten pounds per semester (not 15). 

Yet even these gains may not be healthy ones for your children especially if they are a result of eating high-fat non-nutritious meals and snacks.  It is also important to note that  the most substantial weight increases are seen during the first semester of freshman year, when stress levels can be high and overeating may be a way that students respond to anxiety or even homesickness.

If the weight gain in your older child is pronounced, it is not healthy and can increase a student’s risk of high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and of being overweight as an adult.  Unhealthy food choices may also affect overall nutrient balance, leading to fatigue and poor school performance.

So what can your student do to reduce the risk of excess weight gain when they leave your home?  Skipping meals is not the answer.  Small adjustments seem to do the trick, such as seeing if they and their friends would be willing to remove one can of soda they might otherwise normally drink or forego a midnight snack each day.  When peers work on combatting the weight gain together, the results are always better. 

Getting regular exercise at least 3 days a week, and adequate sleep (7-8- hours a day) is key. Remind your student to not eat when watching TV or when especially stressed.  Instead they should talk to an advisor or teacher who can suggest exercises and activities to relieve that stress.  

Eating slowly at regular times keeps the body on a steady course, as does eating nutritious foods that are lower in fat content, such as low-fat milk and salad dressing.  Tell your older child or teen to take reasonable and not excess portions, don’t go back for seconds, and keep healthy snacks like fruits or vegetables in the dorm refrigerator. 

Often college health facilities offer nutritional counseling which your student and their roommates should take advantage of if they find themselves fixated on food or gaining too much weight.  

Hopefully tips like this will carry some weight with your students so that the pounds do not weigh heavily on them as they start their freshman year.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids