The dreaded Freshman 15. It’s the one thing we want to avoid at all costs when we go to college. As students, we ask ourselves what do we need to do to improve our health, and how do we avoid the Freshman 15? But many of us don’t even know what the Freshman 15 is, or the lifestyle choices that lead up to it. Many of you reading this can testify that it is very easy to gain weight in college, especially if you’re not careful. One study done by WebMD showed that one in four students gain over five percent of their body weight within their first year of college.1
It may not sound as bad as the Freshman 15, and it might not be quite that bad for everyone, but the fact is that weight gain is a real thing, and we need to deal with that. However, what do the statistics say about the other side of the question? Does this same weight gaining phenomenon occur among all people of college age, even among those who don’t go to college right out of high school? Not everyone goes to college, and it’s easy to forget about them in these studies, but does not going to college affect them in the same way as college students? I believe both college students and their non-college peers are both affected by weight gain, but for a few different reasons. The differences are that most college students living on campus have access to unlimited food, combined with high stress, and a lack of physical exercise. Non-college students living at home have less education than college students and lack excercise more than their college counterparts.2 These different factors are why I believe that college students and non-college young adults are both affected by weight gain.
In order to see how these two different groups are affected by weight gain, we first need to see what causes weight gain. According to WebMD, the leading causes of weight gain are predisposed genetics, availability of food, lack of exercise, and the quality of the food. Predisposed genetics for weight gain is a non-contributory cause.3 This means that people with parents that are overweight are more likely to become overweight themselves, more than those that have lean parents. We don’t have a choice on this one, unfortunately. However, even though it may take more effort for someone with predisposed genes for weight gain to maintain a healthy weight, it is still very possible.4 Furthermore, there are two contributors to weight gain that are related. These are the availability of food and the nutritional value of it. The higher the food’s nutritional value while you are consuming it in moderate quantities, the healthier you are eating. The nutritional values of food are actually measured, and manufacturers of foods are required to put those values on the labels of every type of food or beverage in the United States. These include the amounts of proteins, fats, sugars, and carbohydrates that each food contains per serving. Foods that are higher in both sugars and trans-fats are generally considered unhealthy because they lead to cardiovascular issues. They are also more difficult for our bodies to break down because our bodies don’t absorb nutrients from them well, so they generally turn into fat that is hard for our bodies to break down. Respectable quantities of food are determined by every person’s caloric needs based on their activity level as well as their height and weight. The average caloric needs for adults are 2000 calories per day, but that number can change based on height and weight. The truth is that higher nutritional foods are more expensive and usually aren’t as tasty as less nutritional, cheaper foods. Higher nutritional foods can be described as fruits and vegetables, meat, whole grains, and dairy products. Less nutritional foods can be described as fast foods, pizza, soda pop, chips, cookies, candy, fatty foods, and foods that are high in sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.5 We crave less nutritional foods for a few reasons. One, they’re a lot cheaper than healthy foods and usually easier to prepare. They also usually have high amounts of sugar and high fructose corn syrup in them, which causes our brains to produce dopamine, which is the pleasure chemical that makes us feel good.6 Therefore we can infer that the lower the nutritional value or quality of the food, the more likely we are to eat more of it and ultimately lead to greater weight gain. When we have access to a lot of non-nutritional and unhealthy foods it is very easy to overeat, thus causing a surplus in our daily caloric needs, which turns into weight gain.
Lastly, the lack of exercise is something that can lead to weight gain. Our bodies burn calories everyday from doing different regular activities.7 Here is one example. While we sleep, we lose an average of .42 calories per pound per hour. This means that someone weighing 150 pounds that slept for eight hours would burn about 500 calories!8 Our body needs to burn calories to stay alive. So essentially as long as our food intake equals our calories burned, we would break even every day and wouldn’t need to work out. But this is not the case, since the average American adult eats 3,600 calories a day! The average recommended limit is 2000 calories per day. 3,600 calories is more than the suggested amount for adult male athletes, and if you look around, not everyone is an adult male athlete. This is why lack of exercise can lead to weight gain. If calories consumed is greater than calories burned in a day, then that is weight gain. Now we know some major causes of weight gain, but how do all of these contributors to weight gain apply to college students and their non-college attending peers? The truth is a lot.
College students face a lot when they are exposed to this new environment. They deal with large amounts of stress, as well as how to become adults that can make smart decisions themselves. If every one in four students gains five percent of their body weight after their first year, what is going on to cause this? College students living on campus usually have access to unlimited quantities of food. Many students living on campus at a university have meal plans, many of which include unlimited food five to seven days a week. While this may not be the exact case at every college, almost every college has some form of an unlimited food option in a cafeteria, usually for at least five of the seven days of the week. The quality of food also ranges from unhealthy to healthy. We’ve already concluded that we enjoy eating unhealthy foods more than healthy, so if you add unlimited unhealthy food to the equation, and add in student stress, it becomes a big problem. The easiest way to deal with stress is to do something that can release dopamine in our brain. As previously stated, eating fatty and sugary foods causes dopamine to be released. This is why it can become a problem.9
Another factor of weight gain is exercise. Most colleges have gyms that students can use, but the fact is not very many students use them consistently. According to The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association, which sets the standards for amount of exercise that every adult should get, every adult should be doing moderate intensity cardio for thirty minutes at least five days a week. The American College Health Association said in a study from 2009 that only 43 percent of students met the minimum standards.10 Not working out, eating a lot of junk food added with the stress of college is a reality. It is easy for students to fall into bad patterns unless they have a plan, which would include healthy eating every day, working out at least six days a week, and establishing effective ways to cope with stress. While these things are difficult to maintain, most students can manage them most of the time. A lot of students start by living healthy, but then they cheat one day and then the next and it all spirals downward from there. Consistency is key even though we have our cheat days. We need to be self aware and notice when things are going bad and when things are going good. Then we can do what we need to do to fix it. College students are exposed to three major contributors to weight gain that we listed above. Unlimited unhealthy food, stress and lack of exercise are the three biggest reasons as to why college students gain weight and for some unfortunate ones, maybe even the Freshman 15.11
There is still the argument that young adults not attending college are affected just as much with weight gain as college-attending young adults, but for different reasons. In order to establish credibility for this claim, we need to narrow down the argument to a certain group to get specific data. So instead of looking at all young adults not attending college, we’ll look at the young adults not attending college but who also live at home with their parents, just as we only looked at college students living on campus for that argument. When we look at this group of individuals, we see that there is also an argument to be made. College-aged young adults not going to college have less education than their college counterparts and they exercise less than them as well.12 Education is a strange culprit because nobody would think it would be important in determining which groups are affected by weight gain; but it turns out that it has a huge impact. In one study made by the National Center for Health and Statistics conducted on 18 to 24 year old men and women, the amount of students who gained over five percent of their body mass were twenty percent and for those who weren’t in college, they had a thirty-five percent change of gaining over five percent of their body mass within that age range. This means that fifteen percent more non-student within that age period gained over five percent of their body weight. This study concluded that non-students within that same age range as college students were affected more by weight gain than those that were students.13 Another study organized by the Center of Disease Control of non-students aged 18-24 was conducted to determine how many of these adults put in the minimum amount of exercise per week. Only 31 percent of these adults received the adequate amount of exercise each week. This means that the other 69 percent of these adults were exposing themselves to a higher risk of gaining weight since the lack of exercise is one of the major causes of weight gain. From previous data collected, we saw that in a study done by the American College Health Association that 43 percent of college students got the minimum amount of recommended exercise per week.14 With this data we can see that education and the lack of exercise are bigger factors of weight gain in non-college students when compared to college students.
As we take a look back on the thesis we can see that different studies have backed up all of these major points. These young adults not attending college are affected with weight gain in different ways than college students with the primary reason being less education and following closely behind, the lack of exercise. I believe it’s important to remember both sides of the spectrum and see how they are both affected in a similar way so that attention can be drawn to help end these patterns of weight gain in these two different groups. This is important to help prevent obesity in the future. The future starts by making a difference right now and acting on it.