Freshman 15: The Science Behind the Stigma

I’m a “live to eat” rather than a “eat to live” kind of girl. Thus, while college has changed my level of independence and responsibility, the toughest adjustment for me is the food. I cannot explain to you how desperately I long for a home cooked meincredible_freshman_15-front-largeal, something balanced and relatively healthy yet enjoyable. With my busy college schedule, I find myself opting for the unhealthy and “snacky” type of meal. Furthermore, all previous consideration
to my health vanishes when it comes to late night eating, and I’ll carelessly take a trip to D.P. Dough or Gumby’s to satisfy greasy cravings. It all comes down to one thing: the
freshman fifteen. The infamous theory that college kids are doomed for a depressing weight gain due to their mediocre habits. I wonder, what is the science behind this stigma?

In my effort to analyze the freshman fifteen phenomenon, the first piece of valuable insight I came across was a Huffington Post Blog that actually featured an interview with Penn State nutritionists. Thus, a very relevant source of information pertaining to the question at hand. The Penn State dietary gurus shared that a possible explanation for the freshman weight gain was the fact that most dining halls are buffet style. They shared how the freedom of choice paired with the unlimited access to food causes students to either make unhealthy dining decisions or to over-portion their meals. Melissa Hendricks, one of the Penn State University dietitians mentioned in the blog, described how many students take advantage of the constant opportunity to consume foods that were previously eaten only occasionally. While I strongly agree with her claim, it also made me think about my own dining hall, Findlay Commons. It is currently under construction, so there is only a la carte options rather than a traditional buffet. So, why do I still feel like my choices aren’t healthy? Well, I believe I don’t need a professional Penn State dietitian to answer this one. The first thing I remember learning in my elementary science and health classes is the food pyramid, which required that we have an adequate amount of each food group in each meal in order to make that a healthy decision. However, Findlay Commons does not set me up for success according to the food pyramid. If I choose the salad bar at Findlay, I don’t get a good enough serving of protein. If I opt for the Italian food section, I am missing out on my vital vegetables. Then, I am becoming a part of the 66% of adults who fall short of the recommended amount of vegetables each day, according to a Kansas State University article. Therefore, while the buffet style dining promotes overeating and unhealthy options, the a la carte option promotes an unbalanced diet. Each meal, I am choosing which food group I am in the mood to sacrifice. Both dining systems are flawed, and I believe both contribute partially to why college students gain weight in their freshman year.


In addition, many experts claim that the freshman fifteen can be attributed to the increase in stress levels for freshman students. As I have witnessed, the adjustment to college life has been a rollercoaster of emotions. On my first day at Penn State, I actually jumped up and down with excitement and hysterically cried of depression within the same five minutes. From the same Huffington post blog mentioned earlier, a Penn State nutritionist, Alison Borkowska, commented on how stressful college adjustments can in turn cause weight gain. For example, she discusses the increase in strict scheduling that overwhelms most students, causing them to binge eat out of stress. Similarly, a Psychology Today article shares the details of an intuitive research project done by Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management Cornell University that alludes to stress being a catalyst for the freshman fifteen. The research team discovered that students ate more of what they defined as “unhealthy
snacks” than “healthy snacks” during the week leading up to final exams. In other words, the week containing the highest stress levels for the student population. This also aligns with information presented in the 2013 publication of The National College Health Assessment, which declared that 46.3% of surveyed students expressed feelings of inundation in terms of the increase in their college responsibilities and stress levels. Therefore, it seems that the newfound stress that comes with transitioning into college is a clear explanation for the freshman15myth_amanda_jpegfreshman fifteen.

The final cause of the freshman fifteen that I explored was one of the most popular college habits… late night eating. As college students, our bedtimes are not as strict as when our parents set them for us. Furthermore, after late nights of studying or spending time with friends, we usually feel in need of some fuel. However, this Washington Post article explains that the closer you eat to bedtime, the more likely your body will store those calories as fat rather than burning them as energy. In addition, scientists have performed various studies on the reaction of animal bodies to late night eating, which revealed that how the body processes food late at night varies do to a variety of factors. Director of the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at Oregon Health & Science University, Steven Shea, explains that “body temperature, biochemical reactions, hormone levels, physical activity and absorption and digestion of food” all fluctuate when one eats out of rhythm, in this case late at night. However, studies also have noted that there is a confounding variable in the correlation between late night eating and weight gain. Usually, people tend to crave calorie rich foods the later they eat, which would account for the greater calorie intake. 

Overall, the freshman fifteen can be attributed to a plethora of factors. While the dining options throughout campus are unlimited and unbalanced, I believe the primary cause of the freshman fifteen is psychological. The stress and responsibility of adjusting to the collegiate lifestyle is such a prominent source of the tendency to overeat. Furthermore, student brains give into the temptations of college culture, such as late night cravings and unhealthy choices.


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2 thoughts on “Freshman 15: The Science Behind the Stigma

  1. Olivia Mei Zhang

    This post was so enjoyable to read, especially since it is SO applicable to our lives now. As college students, it really is difficult to resist temptation and eat food that isn’t ramen, pizza. easy Mac, or microwaveable dinners. However, I think it’s interesting that we automatically tie college to being a key indicator for the “freshman 15”. I mean it’s called that for a reason, right? But what if there were other variables that also cause this supposed “gaining of weight”? Perhaps some individuals are more susceptible to eating more or are likely to have trouble accommodating to new environments. Maybe throw in the family’s medical history while you’re at it. Weight gain truly is subjective. Great post!

  2. Robert McCarthy

    Really interesting factors that play into weight gain during your freshman year, nice analysis of the freshman 15! One interesting thing that I’ve noticed at Penn State is that few of my friends gained weight while at school, none of them gained over 7 pounds (or at least none of them shared that they gained more). This school also seems to be pretty active in terms of physical activity among students, with a large amount of gyms, athletic clubs, IM sports, etc.
    My question is: Does your choice of school impact how likely you are to gain weight? Are freshman 15’s more common at other schools than Penn State? This might be some interesting data to find out, and it may be something that high schoolers would look at to determine their choice of school.

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