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The reality — or lack thereof — of the 'Freshman 15'

November 22, 2021

Every year, freshmen enter college and have to change their routine to fit the new, unfamiliar environment. With this comes a lot of change to one basic need: food intake.

As freshmen learn to navigate the beginning of the college experience, weight stigma, such as the concept of the "Freshman 15"  follows students around. However, this popular phenomenon — where freshmen in college are predicted to gain 15 pounds within their first year — is actually a myth.

"My main focus as a dietician is to not perpetuate these myths that get brought up year after year even though evidence has proved that the basis of the ‘Freshman 15’ is not true," nutrition program coordinator and certified eating disorder dietician Anne Buffington said.

Buffington said society is in a very weight-focused culture and this phenomenon only promotes a fear of weight gain in a vulnerable population of college students who often fall for the toxicity of diet culture.

College freshmen are predicted to gain nowhere close to the sayings 15 pounds, diminishing the need for diet fads that students can fall prey to.

Buffington said the average weight gain is around three to six pounds in the first year after high school, regardless if someone goes to college or not. It's considered the “physical maturation into adulthood,” she said.

“(Weight gain) theoretically can be a symptom of a medical condition — thyroid condition, insulin resistance – those types of conditions can lead to changes and fluctuations in weight,” Buffington said.

She also explained that weight gain does not necessarily mean someone is in poor physical health, which is a dangerous assumption for body image and security. This means that the diet behaviors many freshmen partake in to fight the “Freshman 15” are irrelevant. Diet culture can also make people susceptible to believing misinformation that is passed along about the “Freshman 15,” Buffington said.

She said anxiety is the real culprit to health problems. At Olin Health Center, the clinics noticed anxiety around food leads to weight gain more often than trends of the actual “Freshman 15.”

"This anxiety can create a preoccupation or sense of worry that really drives dangerous dieting or disordered eating behaviors," Buffington said. Psychology doctoral student in eating disorder research Megan Mikhail said this fear creates its own behaviors that can have worse outcomes than effects of the “Freshman 15.”

“(Anxiety) can actually set them up for fluctuations in blood sugar that can lead to things like binge eating or having a really negative mood,” Mikhail said.

A student fighting against this irrational fear is dietetics senior Cara Hodgins, President of Spartans Empower Body Acceptance, or SEBA. She said spreading awareness and being conscious of not talking badly about yourself or others is a big part of what she does. 

“It's important to uplift others and uplift yourself too,” Hodgins said.

Another goal of the organization is to find where these body image perceptions stem from, Hodgins said.

“It's hard to not look at other people and just idolize them and think 'Oh, she or he is more attractive than I am or they have their life together more than I do,'” Hodgins said. “So it's really hard to stay true to yourself.”

While the message of body acceptance has been widespread in recent years, the reality of body positivity can be hard to accept.

“We're helping students realize ‘How can we stabilize your eating patterns so that your weight can stabilize at a place that is biologically appropriate,’” Buffington said. “And then what we have to do is really work on this body acceptance piece.”

Buffington suggested a concept of the ripple effect of body positivity. If students can counter what they hear, they can shift the culture in their own circle of influence. Others in this circle will spread it to their own, and so on, creating a difference in what college students hear about these stigmatized myths, Buffington said.

“Honestly, (I do think about the “Freshman 15”) because before I was super active and I danced everyday ... and went to the gym every night,” advertising management freshman Kendall Donaldson said. “And here, I'm super busy. I'm in a sorority, I have homework and class and so (health) is not at the top of my list.”

Donaldson said she feels there is more pressure on girls to look good which adds stress.

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“(We have to) work on celebrating people with all different body shapes and sizes,” Mikhail said. “In our culture, we still fixate on the 'thin ideal' and while some people's bodies are naturally like that, a lot of people's aren't.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or disordered behaviors with eating and weight, Buffington suggests taking advantage of campus resources if the level of concern is interfering with day to day activities, such as seeking out the Health Promotion program at the clinic, nutrition counseling or Counseling and Psychiatric Services.

This story is part of our Nov. 16 print edition. Read the full issue here.


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