Freshman 15: Causes of Gained Weight


The following essay is devoted to the subject of the so-called “Freshman 15” which has become a much-discussed issue among the college students and their caregivers. We have studied the literature on the subject of the “Freshman 15” and derived the most probable causes of the undesirable weight gain that can happen to the first-year undergraduate students. The reasons are given as follows: the regular consumption of alcohol and the malnutrition and cravings it causes, the students’ inability to access healthy food in their campuses that opt for the cheapest – and the unhealthiest foods – the lack of parental control the students experience, and stress as the most important factor that is deeply intertwined with other factors. We rebut the opinions concerning the mythic nature of the “Freshman 15” concept since the reasons to it are a part of reality. In our work, we provide references to relevant scholarly sources as well as popular public sources such as video documentary and blogger posts.

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The “Freshman 15”: Background

So, you have lived with your parents – and suddenly you are a college student. Picture that in one environment, you have been able to communicate with your family and peers; you have learned some or the routines and daily rituals, engaged yourself into various sports or just enjoyed an occasional bike ride to your school and back. You have probably been a little bored. At home, the perspective of change seemed intriguing. And then, there is no high school anymore, and you are torn out from the ground you grew on and taken somewhere full of other people, tutors, and disciplines. You have to stick to new rules and learn new things, do a ton of homework, and also socialize and make new friends.

Those who get transitioned and become undergrads often find the transition and the future that awaits after it rather unnerving. The distance from the family and the pressure of the new environment with its rituals can be scary – not to mention the fact that some of the rituals and routines students have to establish themselves, relying on the schedule they have. For example, one can find that there is no time left for their first-thing-in-the-morning Penny board ride or even slapping up a healthy breakfast. Indeed, the ultimate change after you leave the high school for college is the ways and habits of eating – and maybe exercising, but for the most part of it, eating plays a crucial role.

Causes of the “Freshman 15”

The idea of the “Freshman 15” is well-known as an average amount of gained weight – which is said to be 15 pounds – among the first-year undergraduate students. To various researchers it is a study material, and to students it is just something to laugh at. Some of the students think it is a myth, while others nevertheless treat is as a fact – especially after they have experienced it. A popular “Freshman 15” documentary based on the materials of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (Charlotte, NC) features some students’ opinion.

They tend to be in two minds about the whole concept of the “Freshman 15” as a thing that happens to other people. They also suppose it is just the matter of food choice (colormearab377, 2013). The video is probably meant to soothe its viewers who are practically hysterical about the weight gain. But even though the video – as well as many other videos – try to assure the viewers of the mythical nature of the “Freshman 15” idea, why are so many solutions offered? It seems illogical that so many solutions should be offered to a problem that is nonexistent, which is why the “Freshman 15” should probably not be regarded as one.


The regular consumption of alcohol

The consequences and the solutions to the “Freshman 15” are a plethora and present in abundance all over the Internet. The consequences are obvious: weight gain leads to disrupted body image and unhealthy mood that is very likely to result into self-hatred and, probably, depression; not to speak of the damage that weight gain does to one’s health unless their BMI is lower than 18.5. The solutions are also present in abundance. These include counting one’s calories and cutting them whenever possible: opting for healthier meal and snack choices, keeping mind on the meal time, excluding alcohol from your diet, and engaging into regular exercising and sports (Mongiello, Freudenberg, & Spark, 2015).

But what causes the “Freshman 15” in the first place? As we have already said, the problem cannot be turned a blind eye to, since the consequences are quite serious on the scale of public health and body-positivity. To decide upon the causes of the nasty “Freshman 15,” we have reviewed a significant amount of both scholarly and popular literature and have singled out several likely reasons why first-year undergrads tend to pick up flesh. On account of our studies, we have conceded that the most probable causes of the “Freshman 15” are alcohol, the calorie-enriched food on campus menus, the sense of freedom that students have once out of their home environment – as well as some other psychological issues – and stress.

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Malnutrition and cravings caused by alcohol

It is well-known that a human body spends energy when it functions, which means that it has to compensate the energy output with the energy intake – which is why we have to eat to live. Calories are basically used to measure the very-close-to-true amount of energy a person consumes, with a minimum error. It is rather hard to measure an average amount of calories for all people since the bodies’ needs differ just as the bodies do. However, if one knows their calories, watching their diet should not be a problem.

Nevertheless, sometimes we forget that an innocent glass of beer is astoundingly high in calories. In fact, there are enough calories in a small can of beer to count as a light snack – except that the beer itself is hardly ever considered one. It is the actual snacks that wind up the calorie intake to the extent of un-believability. We do not promote pure sobriety for ever and ever. An occasional shiny cocktail with an umbrella and a slice of pineapple in it is not a problem in itself – although the calories are on the high and one will probably want another cocktail and maybe go wild after that. The key word here is “occasional”. A recent research has shown that those who consume alcohol regularly – that is, more than once a week – tend to develop unhealthy cravings, which result in malnutrition (Sloan Kruger & Kruger, 2015).

The explanation is simple. The regular consumption of alcohol, especially in young and growing organisms, can result into the drainage of some essential vitamins and minerals. After a person has been drinking regularly for some time, these can be in deficit: folate, vitamin B12, vitamin A, calcium, etc. The creation and maintenance of new cells, the health of nerves and blood cells, the immune system and the bone tissue, the secretion of various hormones depend on these vitamins and minerals. Alcohol is an obstacle for their absorption from food, transportation and usage.

Consequently, when one’s body is deprived of these substances, it starts to signal that it is starving. This is how the cravings arise (Sloan Kruger & Kruger, 2015). The research has also asserted that the higher the amount of alcohol drunk by students, the lower their health index was. Also, the processed food high in unhealthy fats was most frequently used as snacks in those who consumed the biggest quantities of alcohol (Sloan Kruger & Kruger, 2015). Thus, the alcohol-lovers disrupt their health both with alcohol and the greasy snacks they eat.

Lack of healthy food choices

But what if they have no other food choices available? It is stated that eating habits that students develop at college are drastically different from those they used to have at home. The main reason to it is that the colleges do not often have a wide range of healthy food choices on offer (Goodwin et al., 2011). Indeed, fresh food tends to be expensive; what is more, it takes time to prepare: rinse and dry some lettuce, cut up some feta cheese and herbs, grill a chicken breast, boil some whole rice, or even make an omelet out of actual eggs. Instead, the college campus canteens opt for the food that is cheaper and easier to cook.

The choice usually falls upon the highly processed and ready-made pre-packaged meals that are easy to throw into a deep fryer or microwave oven and wait a couple of minutes: tacos, chicken-fried steaks, burritos, burgers, French fries; not to speak of frozen custard pies and ice cream cones. Also, some of the researchers state that there is usually a lack of grocery stores around the campuses, where students could buy something that is less than 700 calories per serving (Horacek et al., 2013). The documentary we have spoken of features some commuters that do not experience such a drastic impact of college food on the amount of flesh on their stomachs (colormearab377, 2013). Thus, the students that use the dorms appear to be the most vulnerable group, with no other food to eat except the fatty calorie bombs served at the canteens and cafeterias.

The students’ unguardedness

If the college campus menus were the only ones to blame, the “Freshman 15” would not be that much of a problem. As we have researched the subject, it seemed that the whole issue was a patchwork of several inner issues. It can be assumed that those willing to maintain their healthy body weight could actually find ways to do it even if they do not have low-calorie or low-carb meal solutions to choose from. However, another reason to the weight gain lies deep inside the students’ personalities: it is the sense of freedom and lack of supervision that they feel after they have left home – which partially consists of finally being able to eat what you like.

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Diets that are controlled by the students’ parents at home are usually relatively healthy. It means that parents try to watch their children’s eating behavior and provide them with the abundance of nutritious and vitamin-enriched foods such as veggies, milk products, lean proteins, good carbohydrates and an occasional chunk of glucose to boost the brain work (Mongiello et al., 2015). Healthy as it may be, such diet can seem rather boring for some, especially if there is no chance of an occasional pepperoni on cheese crust in a local pizzeria. In such students, freedom tends to be associated with junk food that they have never got at home – and which is generously handed out to them in the campus canteens. It is true that some of the students are repulsed by the food served in the dining halls.

But there is also a plenty of those who either crave all things greasy and salty or wish to copy the others’ eating behavior so as to blend into the team. Such behavior is caused by some interpersonal or intrapersonal problems the students have experienced while studying at the high school (Goodwin et al., 2011). The psychological issues may not always be the case, of course, but if there are such issues, they basically layer on every other issue there is. At any rate, we have determined that the students’ psyche and lack of control on the side of the elders can be yet another reason they binge on unhealthy foods.


Stress hormones slowing metabolism

Our fourth finding is probably the ultimate one, the one which encompasses all other three (the psyche, the alcohol and the poor food choices) and leads to the most drastic results. It is stress we are talking about. Stress is a very serious problem, especially for college students. Stress is formed by a multitude of factors and can badly affect the students in terms of their eating habits and result in weight gain. They can either feel lonely or scared by the unfamiliar atmosphere, or develop a variety of complexes, or simply get tired too often.

For one, the load of homework that students have to cope with means they do not have the time to eat healthy or sometimes sit up late and eat at night. The lack of sleep stresses the organism and begins the secretion of cortisol, which – together with adrenalin – are commonly known as hormones of stress. However, in contrast to the adrenalin that winds up one’s metabolic processes, cortisol slows them down, resulting in weight gain. Also, stressed students are more likely to indulge themselves in alcohol as a way of relaxation (Wichianson et al., 2009).

As we have conceded, the longitudinal and regular consumption of alcohol results into the release of the cravings for greasy, fatty foods. – and these, in turn, are precisely the kind of foods that are in abundance on the campus menus all over the country. Thus, stress is probably the universal reason for the weight gain most commonly known as the “Freshman 15” since it is the cornerstone of all other factors that lead to the undesirable weight gain.

Opinions on the subject of the “Freshman 15”

There are, of course, opinions that try to disprove the significance and sometimes the very existence of the “Freshman 15”. It is stated that the “Freshman 15” is a publicly popular hoax that is designed for whatever reasons to stress out the undergrads even more. The bloggers suggest that too much ado is made about nothing and that the fuss and anxiety can prove more harmful than the actual – and nonexistent – “Freshman 15” (Breene, 2013).

There are also authors that stick to the agnostic position, stating that the “Freshman 15” is neither the complete fiction nor the ultimate reality. Such authors state that the majority of the undergrads can expect the appearance of a certain amount of extra flesh during their first year at college. However, they argue, hardly anyone gains more than 4-10 pounds (Zelman, 2011). Nevertheless, the authors usually agree that the students can – and do – experience various circumstances that can lead to weight gain, which means that the threat of the “Freshman 15” is real.


To sum it up, we have devoted this study to the problem of the notorious “Freshman 15” and the reasons to it. Among the likeliest factors resulting in the weight gain are the regular consumption of alcoholic beverages and the cravings for unhealthy foods it causes, the lack of healthy food choices on the college premises, the sense of unguardedness the students tend to experience, and, most importantly, stress, which co-opts all the other factors. That the “Freshman 15” should have a solely mythic nature seems rather unlikely. It is possible that the “15” part of it is not entirely true. However, as the students’ experiences are of the kind that might result into a weight gain – especially the stress – we can conclude that there is a grain of truth in the whole idea of the “Freshman 15”, and the stress is the most significant determinant of it.

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Breene, S. (2013). Why The ‘Freshman 15’ Is A Lie. Huffpost Healthy Living. Web.

colormearab377. (2013). Freshman 15 Documentary [Video file]. Web.

Goodwin, S. K., Hosig, K. W., Serrano, E. L., Redican, K. J., You, W., & Schroeder, A. D. (2011). Development of the University Health Index to Examine the Interface between Campus Environment and Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Weight in College Students. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Horacek, T. M., Erdman, M. B., Reznar, M. M., Olfert, M., Brown-Esters, O. N., Kattelmann, K. K.,…White, A. A. (2013). Evaluation of the Food Store Environment on and Near the Campus of 15 Postsecondary Institutions. American Journal of Health Promotion, 27(4), 81-90.

Mongiello, L. L., Freudenberg, N., & Spark, A. (2015). Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice on Campus: A Qualitative Study. Health Behavior and Policy Review, 2(2), 110-121.

Sloan Kruger, J., & Kruger, D. J. (2015). The Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Food Choices Among College Students. American Journal of Health Studies, 30(2), 70-73.

Wichianson, J. R., Bughi, S. A., Unger, J. B., Spruijt-Metz, D., & Nguyen-Rodriguez, S. T. (2009). Perceived stress, coping and night-eating in college students. Stress and Health, 25(3), 235-240.

Zelman, K. M. (2011). Diet Myth or Truth: The Freshman 15. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Freshman 15: Causes of Gained Weight'. 13 January.

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