First Year 15: Fact or Fiction?

Lori Klapperich, M.S.

Assistant Director of Health Promotion

College of St. Benedict/Saint John's University

Jenny Miller, Ph.D., LP


College of Saint Benedict/St. John's University

It seems that many generations of college students (and mostly women) have been told they will be likely to gain fifteen pounds their first year at college (or here, for unfortunate rhyming reasons, the “Bennie 20.”)

The most current research (Journal of American College Health, 2002) indicates that the First Year Fifteen is a myth.  They tracked a group of women, monitoring their weight, body fat, and attitudes about gaining weight at the beginning and end of their first year of college.  More than half of the students (59%) put on weight, but the average gain was only 4.6 pounds.  More than one third (36%) of the students LOST weight.  However, the students who were most worried about gaining the First Year 15 were the ones who perceived the most weight gain, even if they hadn’t gained any weight at all. 

One of the main problems with the First Year 15 myth is that students may think that weight gain their first year is inevitable, thus not monitoring themselves and turning the myth into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Why might people gain weight at college?  Below are some typical reasons:

  • It is normal for people to experience weight fluctuations during times of major life transitions.  College certainly qualifies as one.
  • Prior to college, students’ schedules were likely mapped out pretty thoroughly.  In college, however, students are responsible for scheduling everything, including eating, sleeping, and exercise.
  • Some students engage in emotional eating, like eating when they are sad or stressed.  
  • Some students feel overwhelmed at college, and this can lead to them reducing their activity level—especially exercise.  In addition, several students who were on athletic teams in high school are no longer in organized sports in college.  For these individuals, it will be more difficult to get in all the exercise they had in high school—especially when they have to schedule it themselves.
  • Food was more controlled at home.  Most meals had a set menu, and set portions.  Here, that’s considerably different; there are more choices, and both cafeterias offer an “eat all you want” format.  Students may also be eating on the run and not noticing when they are full.
  • Students are famous for their late-night hours.  Along with staying up later at night is eating more at night.  If these calories aren’t accounted for in your daily intake, they will add to weight gain.  Staying up late also drains energy during the day and makes students less likely to exercise.
  • Alcohol is a big source of calories for some students, and it is entirely empty calories.  For example, four oz. of wine=100 calories; a can of beer, 150-170; light beer has 100 calories.  And one shot of hard liquor has 110 calories.  This does not include any juice or soda added as a mixer.  Over the course of a year, two cans of beer a day can result in a 33-lb. weight gain!  Overdrinking can also affect how a person feels the next day, which influences eating and exercise choices.
  • While it may seem like a way to reduce calories, skipping breakfast usually has the opposite effect.  Students tend to miss breakfast more often in college, preferring to sleep in or being in more of a hurry to get to class or work in the mornings.  However, research has shown that skipping breakfast not only slows down our metabolism, but people who skip breakfast actually tend to eat more calories over the course of the rest of their day.
  • Eating out is also a big culprit.  Fast foods and restaurant fare almost always have higher fat content than home prepared (or college-prepared) foods, plus the portions are generally larger than normal.
  • Some students also choose more snacks from vending machines because they’re more readily available.  This will lead to more snacks of candy bars or chips as opposed to fruits and vegetables.

What can you do to manage your weight during the college years?

  • Eat breakfast.  The research suggests a high-fiber and vitamin/mineral-fortified cereal is best, but a banana, cereal bar or 100% juice is better than skipping.
  • Establish an exercise regimen. Not only will it help burn calories, it’ll make you sleep better and make you more alert during class and study time!
  • Learn to accept that your body is different from everyone else’s and it might still look a certain way despite changes in diet and exercise.
  • Look at your body over the course of your lifetime and think about what you want it to be able to do for you.  Think about your body as a car; it will not function well without fuel!
  • Remember that food is both energy and enjoyment…don’t rely on it to be just one or the other.
  • You may be tired of hearing this, but do everything in moderation.  Too much food or too little food leads to problems, as does too much or too little exercise.  Find a balance that works for you and your body.
  • Be planful.  Grab an apple at lunch for your afternoon snack rather than getting something at a vending machine.  Set aside time each day for meals.
  • Work on managing your stress.  Get enough sleep, food, exercise, and personal time.  Instead of eating Ben and Jerry’s when you’re stressed out, go for a walk, or watch a silly TV show.
  • Control your portion sizes.  If you eat out, bring half your meal home for leftovers. 
  • If you’re concerned that your eating patterns have become out of control (either too much or too restrictive), it may be helpful to come talk with a counselor.