How to Avoid the Freshman 15

Avoiding the Freshman 15

College freshman
Getty Images/ML Harris

My first day of college, I couldn't wait to get started on my new life. I had new clothes, new accessories, a new attitude and, a year later, a new layer of fat. With all the changes that happen in college, it isn't surprising so many people gain weight. And that weight gain doesn't just affect your college years. That weight gain also sets you up for weight problems that could follow you into adulthood.

Our sedentary society affects all of us, but as a student, you can do things to stay fit and avoid gaining the freshman 15.

Plan, Prepare, and Attack

Going off to college means finally being in charge of your life, but it also means dealing with temptations that can cause you to gain weight. The best way to handle that is to think ahead and have a plan for dealing with the most common pitfalls:

1. Drinking.

Binge drinking is a growing problem on college campuses around the country and it can cause brain damage, memory loss and even death. Drinking too much can also cause something else: Weight gain. Alcohol doesn't contain fat, but it does contain calories -- 7 calories per gram as opposed to protein and carbs, both of which contain 4 calories per gram. Add in other high-calorie extras like juice, mixes or sugar, and the calories can start to pile on. The average 12-ounce can of beer has about 148 calories so, even if you only have one beer a night, that's an extra 1,000 calories a week you're adding to your diet.

That means gaining more than a pound a month.

Kicking the Habit.

Underage drinking leads to a host of problems, often much more serious than gaining weight. So avoiding alcohol altogether offers your best protection for staying fit and safe. If you do drink, moderation is the key, though that can be difficult with endless parties and tremendous pressure to drink to excess.

You can make it easier by having one or two glasses of water for every alcoholic drink you have, which will keep you hydrated and help avoid a late night greasy food-fest. It also helps to avoid drinking every night. Save it for the weekend and, when you're at a party, avoid the trashcan punch which usually has Everclear, or some other hard liquor, which contains more alcohol. The more alcohol in a drink, the more calories.

2. Pizza.

Nothing is more soothing than digging into a warm, cheesy pizza in the middle of an all-night cram session. The truth is, pizza isn't the worst thing you could choose for a late-night dinner. If you opt for veggie toppings and avoid the deep dish extravaganza, you can enjoy the nutritional benefits of pizza -- the cheese satisfies your dairy needs, the tomato sauce/veggie toppings satisfy part of your vegetable requirements, and the crust provides nutrients from the bread and grain food group.

Kicking the Habit.

Pizza becomes your enemy at 2:00 in the morning after you've already had dinner.

Staying up late usually means eating more, and late-night snacks tend to be on the unhealthy side. You're better off planning for late night snacks by eating a little less throughout the day. You'll enjoy your pizza a lot more knowing that you're not adding extra calories to your diet.

3. All You Can Eat!

I don't know about you, but the cafeteria at my university provided tons of yummy food and unlimited amounts of it. I learned the hard way that going back for seconds was quickly adding some bags to my saddle. After a long day of mind-numbing classes, your body will try to trick you into eating something fattening to perk you up.

Kicking the Habit.

First, visit the USDA's MyPlate to brush up on the basics of healthy eating.

Some simple ideas are to fill up on vegetables and fruit and choose whole-grain breads and pastas. Eating foods that are grilled or steamed rather than fried or sautéed will also help you avoid extra fat. Eat slowly and savor every bite and you'll find it easier to avoid that second trip down the pasta line. Oh and watch the salad dressing, which can have up to 150 calories per serving.  Here's a great example of a Healthy Balanced Meal.

4. (Yawn) Late nights.

Lack of sleep can also contribute to increased appetite and weight gain. When you're sleep-deprived, you're much more likely to revert to the kinds of food available only through dollar-sucking machines. It's inevitable that you'll experience some late nights, so what can you do to minimize the damage?

Kicking the Habit.

The only way around this one is to try as best you can to get good, quality sleep. This may require saying no to late night parties or changing your schedule to get your studying in earlier, but it also means your body will function in peak condition.

It helps if you have regular sleeping habits like going to bed and getting up at the same time each day.

5. No Exercise.

In high school, you may have been the star of the track team or a pretty decent football player. Now that you're in college, you may find that your daily activities consist of watching your favorite soap opera and rooting through your roommate's grunge pile for a spare bag of potato chips.

Now is not the time to stop exercising. You don't have to train for a marathon or anything. Just finding ways to move around every day can help stave off the extra pounds.

Kicking the Habit.

Even if you're busy, you can still find time to exercise. Walking from class to class qualifies, as does running up and down stairs. But you should also try to get more structured exercise like jogging around campus or hitting the gym for strength training. Most schools have some type of fitness facility (usually free to students) and some even offer free personal training. Don't forget, strength training can help raise your metabolism by adding some lean body tissue. If you can't seem to drag your butt to the campus gym, you don't need a lot of equipment to get a great workout. Try these workouts you can do right in your dorm room or apartment with little or no equipment needed:

For more exercise tips, visit my Beginner's Corner and find facts on working out and links to workout ideas.

The trick to enjoying your freshman year is a mixture of planning, mindfulness, and enjoyment. It's tempting to go off the deep end, what with all that intoxicating freedom surrounding you. But, what you want to strive for is moderation. Have fun, enjoy your freedom, but make smart choices. It's easier to do this when you surround yourself with like-minded friends. Make friends with people who won't pressure you into having one more drink or one more slab of pie and you'll find avoiding temptation that much easier.


Racette, Susan B., et al. Weight Changes, Exercise, and Dietary Patterns During Freshman and Sophomore Years of College. Journal of American College Health 2005; 53: 245-251.

Holm-Denoma JM, et al. The "freshman fifteen" (the "freshman five" actually): predictors and possible explanations. Health Psychol. 2008 Jan;27(1 Suppl):S3-9.9

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