The Freshman Fifteen: Fact, Fiction, or Fatphobia?

Olivia Daly, H&W Page Director

The Freshman 15: fact or fiction? Online health articles, college newspapers, and blog posts use recycled content to look into the stereotype of the “freshman 15” year after year. Their findings are almost always identical. They start by explaining the freshman 15–  the rumored weight gain of fifteen pounds in one’s first year of college– and go on to say that while the freshman 15 is a myth, weight gain in college is not. These articles then explain ways students can make healthier choices in college and avoid weight gain. The freshman 15 is not a harmless stereotype. Heightened fears about weight gain and body image paired with the freedom to choose one’s meal plan can cause unhealthy disturbances in eating behaviors.

WebMD’s online piece titled, “Diet Myth or Truth: The Freshman 15,” is a perfect example of the freshman 15 content that floods the internet each year. The article starts by presenting statistics with little context or explanation, stating, “Typical weight gain … is 4-10 pounds during the first year of college .. the average female freshman gains 5 pounds in her first year … freshmen gained an average of 4.2 pounds during the first 12 weeks of school.” These statistics are used to assert that “even 4 extra pounds can add up.” Comments like these are detrimental to a student’s mental health. 

According to a 2008 study by clinical psychologist Dr. Sherrie Delinsky and Rutgers psychology professor Dr. G Terrence Wilson, “Disordered eating increases during the first year of college and is predicted by prospective dietary restraint and concerns about weight gain.” Articles such as WebMD’s directly target teenage girls. They prey on teenage girls’ insecurities about physical appearance and encourage seventeen and eighteen-year-olds to “keep track of calories,” and weigh themselves regularly. When it comes to one’s weight, promoting obsessive behavior is a sure way to cause issues with body image and even lead to disordered eating. When a prominent website such as WebMD is putting out content that tells teenage girls and incoming freshmen gaining weight is “bad news,” it raises concerns.

College weight gain is not an abnormal phenomenon. The University of Texas at Austin’s university health services explains that “moderate weight gain between the ages of 18-23 is quite normal since this is the time that the adult body develops and settles at its natural “set point” weight.” They go on to write that fighting against this natural weight gain is unhealthy and can lead to “unwanted health consequences,” including disordered eating. In extreme cases, this can cause what online resource Eating Disorder Hope, is calling the “reverse freshman 15,” where students become consumed by fear of gaining weight and, alarmingly, lose it instead. 

Regardless of what one might hear on the internet, weight gained during freshman year is not irregular. Starting college is a huge adjustment. Students are living on their own for the first time and have many new responsibilities. Eating healthy is one of these new responsibilities, and it’s one of the most important. Obsession with weight gain and weight loss can quickly emerge from a fixation on avoiding the “freshman 15.” An unhealthy relationship with food will ultimately be more damaging to one’s health than gaining weight in college.