What Is the Meaning of the Freshman 15 – Breaking the Stigma

Contributor: Rita Ekelman, MBA, RDN, LDN, Director of Nutrition Services, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Multiracial Group of Friends in college battling the Freshman 15There are so many things to positively anticipate as a freshman entering college. A new environment, new friends, even new academic pursuits are known to rank up there at the top. What does not engender a positive thought in the minds and hearts of young college students is the freshman 15.

Many decades ago, first-year weight gain was referred to as the freshman 10; but somewhere in the 1980s, it became officially coined as the freshman 15. This refers to the amount of weight that incoming freshmen can supposedly expect to gain in the first year.

Why The Freshman 15 Weight Gain Often Occurs

True, weight gain can occur during the first year of college due to a variety of reasons. Moreover, this phenomenon is not experienced exclusively by females. Males, especially those who were highly involved in high school athletics, may find themselves far less active in college.

Add that to no longer eating at home, and probably consuming alcohol, and weight gain, even a beer belly, can result. The same holds true for females; they are away from home, eating different food than before, and perhaps engaging in late-night eating with dorm mates.

Students can gain weight, but it is not a given and it certainly doesn’t have to be 15 pounds. In fact, according to a study conducted at Auburn University, the average student weigh gain for the entire freshman year was 4.8 pounds. The male population gained an average of 5.4, while the females gained an average of only 3.2 pounds.*

Dealing with the Stigma of the “Freshman 15”

student girls looking at notebook at schoolThe problem remains that the stigma of the “freshman 15” is now hitting a much younger generation. Nationwide, many teenagers, especially females, who are juniors and seniors in high school, are already starting to dread the freshman 15. So much so that they start living a so called healthy lifestyle.

They begin obsessing about what and how much they are eating and become overly interested in exercise. Sadly, this can lead to an eating disorder before they even set foot on a college campus. It is easy to restrict to the point that an adolescent becomes anorexic, or become so involved with pure foods or eating “clean” that she becomes orthorexic, which is defined as an obsession with righteous eating.

The Increased Pressure of College

Once a young woman gets to college with its increased pressure and demands, there is an increase in eating disorders, which includes bulimia. Not only is there the ubiquitous fear of weight gain, but food starts being used as a way to cope with stress.

Although sororities can be very positive, there is often a focus on physical appearance; being thin is an understood requirement. Sorority sisters often compete to see who can ingest fewer calories each week.

Growing Awareness of the Pressures to Be Thin

class_group_therapy_lectureChange is possible. All of us need to drop the term “freshman 15” from our vocabularies; the expression is absurd, to say nothing of inaccurate. Beginning at the high school level, parents need to grow more aware of eating and exercise habits in their daughters. Once a young woman goes away to college, parental influence is sharply diminished.

Colleges and universities might want to reconsider some of their wellness programs. Although the goal to curb obesity is laudable and well-intended, these programs are often weight and fat-shaming and can result in eating disorders. Even posting calorie counts in cafeterias, also well-intended, places an inordinate focus on the calories in food, instead of the food itself.

Perhaps these wellness programs could focus less on weight and BMI numbers, and more on educating young college students on how to manage busy schedules, continue getting enough movement and proper nutrition.

How to Stay Healthy and Active

College students, not unlike the rest of the world, need to stay active, doing things they love such as bike riding, hiking, walking with friends, or playing intermural sports. Eating a varied well balanced diet, not just one that fits the daily calorie count, is essential.

Most important for every student is finding a healthy, positive outlet for stress and emotions, since college is often a very turbulent time. This could be yoga, volunteering, playing a musical instrument, or participating in exercise that is truly enjoyable and not merely engaged in to burn calories.


  1. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080406153357.htm

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on June 18, 2019
Published July 25, 2015, on EatingDisorderHope.com