The Truth About the “Freshman 15”

A UNC student uncovers the truth about the "freshman 15" and why students sometimes eat less healthy food in college
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Photo courtesy of DisobeyArt/

College is an exciting time in one’s life, but it is also one of the most stressful times, filled with new challenges and lifestyle changes. The “freshman 15” is said to result from this unique experience.

As a first-year student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I can see how a college student can get the “freshman 15.” I find it difficult to make time to participate in physical activities. My schedule is not constant, resulting in me eating at different times throughout the day. When I do find time to eat, the variety of unhealthy food available does not help. Late-night snacks such as popcorn and M&Ms seem to make studying for a big test a little less stressful. This combination of new lifestyle changes, stress, and the availability of unhealthy foods correlates with unhealthy eating and weight gain in college for many students.

Despite the “freshman 15” myth, college students gain substantially less than 15 pounds their freshman year, with only about an estimated 1-pound increase, according to one 2017 study by Dr. C.L. Baum. In fact, non-college students tend to weigh more than college students. When college students were asked to reflect on their dietary “failures” in a three-day food diary, students explained their unhealthy eating by referencing their current life stage and identity as a college student, according to a 2017 study by D.A. Harris. This justification served to reduce the feeling of shame the students felt and allowed them to consider unhealthy eating as the new normal. Many students used convenience and quickness to justify choosing unhealthy food. Other loyalties and commitments, such as finances and social relationships, were more important than eating healthy.

The structure that parents provide is not available to students in college, who must figure things out on their own and create a new routine. This proves to be difficult when life gets busy and overwhelming. A person under stress may not choose the healthiest food options. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the dining halls have a variety of foods displayed. A student can choose anything they want and go back for seconds or thirds. Non-university food businesses that serve students, such as Chick-fil-a and Wendy’s, can also affect students’ dining decisions. When time is limited, these businesses are a quick way to get food when students are in a hurry and do not want to sit down for a meal in the dining hall.

Parents of college students should be sensitive to the lifestyle changes their children are going through. It's important to recognize that they still need guidance when making life decisions. College students still need structure from their parents while they begin to learn how to make smart decisions on their own. An occasional text reminder to eat breakfast or a call to make sure they ate a healthy dinner can help college students start making good eating habits on their own.

Guest blogger Emily Mitchell is a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is studying to be a nurse. 


Categories: Food + Fun, Teen Scene, Teens