Freshman year of college is terrifying. As much as I can look back and laugh at the painful awkwardness of freshman orientation and my first college party, I remember how terrifying it was in the moment. For me, the only thing scarier than eating alone in the cafeteria was the impact those cafeteria meals were going to have on my body. Specifically, I was terrified of the Freshman 15. 

Seventeen Magazine coined the phrase in 1989 with the magazine subheadline "FIGHTING THE FRESHMAN 15," and it's been freaking teens out ever since. As we enter the fall semester of 2017, I know this phrase is not only relevant but is also having lasting effects on current college freshmen. 

Freshmen, before you let that phrase color your relationship with food or your body in college, here’s the low-down on this health phenomenon, and whether there’s any scientific basis behind this claim… or not. 

Legit Scientific Research

pizza, tea, coffee, beer
Meghan Flynn

A lot of research (below) has been done to determine if this phrase lives up to its name. And, honestly, this idea is a lot more talk than anything.

I’m going to start with some straight facts, because I wish I had seen them before my freshman year. According to a 2011 study by the Ohio State University, the average college student gains between 2.5-3.5 pounds in their freshman year of college. The guys were noted to gain more weight than the girls. But still, a couple pounds is far different than 15 pounds.

Since I learned in 6th grade science class that all experiments must be reproducible, here’s some more data that shows the same damn thing. In a study by the National College Health Assessment, the results were pretty much the same as the previous survey: the average college student gained 2.7 pounds in their freshman year, which is, again, clearly not 15 pounds. 33 percent of respondents experienced no weight change, and 15 percent of college freshmen reported weight loss in their freshman year (at an average of 7.4 pounds per respondent).

So, yes, there’s a possibility of weight gain in your freshman year, but it's probably not going to be 15 pounds. Gaining "the 15" is not just going to happen to you because you’re going to college. Plus, avoiding that weight gain is not synonymous with being healthy in college.

beer, pizza
Hunter Midkiff

While many contribute the freshman weight gain to being introduced to a college lifestyle, including the dining hall, binge drinking, and a newfound independence, much of this weight is actually correlated to regular maturity (i.e. it would happen no matter what the circumstances). Dr. Lawrence Friedman of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine stated that "Teens are not fully grown at age 17 or 18. We would expect growth and weight gain during these years that have nothing to do with college."

Even though that Seventeen Magazine phrase is scientifically false today, the anxiety of gaining weight as a late teen is palpable 28 years later. The hype of the Freshman 15 has resulted in some really real and "intense fears about gaining weight" and a feeling of powerlessness against the "inevitable ... freshman weight gain." 

Jay Zagorsky, research scientist for the Ohio State University Center for Human Resource Research, warned that the "repeated use of the phrase 'the freshman 15,' even if it is being used just as a catchy, alliterative figure of speech, may contribute to the perception of being overweight, especially among young women."

Beyond the Statistics

I didn't have the most typical experience with the Freshman 15. I went into college in recovery from Anorexia Nervosa, and my main focus was on not losing weight in my first year of college. Thankfully, I was able to maintain my weight without any change in my freshman year (so no Freshman 15, or negative 15 thankfully), but I still was able to enjoy my time on campus.

I went out, drunk ate, took a few too many naps, and didn't swipe into the school gym once, and I was fine. However, I did recognize that the pressure to maintain your shape was intense on my campus. The Freshman 15 was not merely a phrase, but a discussion point at various dining hall meals and workout sessions. 

If You're Dreading the Freshman 15

I spoke to a few of my friends from home and college to provide a more diverse depiction of the Freshman 15, and what you can do if you’re feeling the same way.

If You're Insecure About Social Media

"I went to a college that required all first years to get an unlimited meal plan, so the Freshman 15 was definitely a concern and something that was often a topic of discussion. I think that the fear of the Freshman 15 goes back to body image and the fact that you are constantly taking photos while you're at school. The fear of the Freshman 15 certainly makes you less confident about posting photos on social media, out of fear of judgement and examination by those looking at your photos."

There are so many reasons that we need to stop worrying about external criticism. Most people are probably too busy worrying about their own bodies to really care about yours (welcome to 2017). So as much as it is a natural fear, I think that most of the judgment is internal rather than from others. Also, anyone that is spending their time stalking your Insta to see if you’ve gained a few pounds needs to get a life.

If Gaining the Freshman 15 Was Real For You  

“As a guy, I didn’t really focus as much on weight gain in college because I thought it was more of a female concern. I didn’t realize I had gained weight until it happened, and it took me all of spring semester to fix it. I think it happened because I was just used to playing sports in high school, and then it all stopped. It’s not something that guys talk about a bunch, but we want to stay in shape and not get fat.”

Contrary to many, the Freshman 15 is not just a female concern. I think that my friend’s experience is very typical of many males and females in college. If you’re leaving your varsity letter days behind you in high school, I would recommend hitting up the school gym a few times a week or exploring your campus on runs in order to stay fit. Exercising produces endorphins, which help reduce stress (...and make you happy, and happy people just don’t shoot their husbands), so it’s a no-brainer. 

And though exercising and treating your body right is obviously important, respecting the changes occurring in your body is also key. Don't over-do it in the gym to compensate for your new college lifestyle, because you also gotta prioritize your mental health. 

If You’re Trying to Change Your Outlook on the Freshman 15

stout, alcohol, liquor, beer
Alex Frank

"I gained it, lost it, and gained it back again. I wasn't too stressed about the 15 because college is only 4 years and you should enjoy it. It was 150% from drinking three times a week, but it was really just a reality on my campus."

College obviously provides a lot of new independence for students, and it’s not atypical to be drinking multiple times a week. Since we all know that alcoholic calories are real, there is certainly a tendency to “compensate” for the additional calories of alcohol in other ways, but restricting throughout the day is dangerous because it increases the impact of alcohol on your body.

Drunkorexia seems to be the perfect prevention mechanism for weight gain until you’re blacking out and getting alcohol poisoning (read: it’s not a good idea). It’s so important to remember that staying safe around alcohol is more important than a few pounds on the scale. 

How to Freaking Deal

snack, study snack, textbook, notebook, taking notes, notes, studying, citrus, orange
Jocelyn Hsu

Whether you gain the Freshman 15, struggle with negative body image, or are generally feeling stressed about all the changes in college, just know that you are not alone. 

The Freshman 15 may not be statistically real, but the struggle of feeling good about the body you’re in is. I encourage you to discover healthy eating habits that you vibe with, not because you’re freaked about weight gain, but because it’s important to nourish your body and treat it well. Here are some tips on how to not let the drunchies kill your eating schedule, still enjoy food, and deal with any changes that may occur in your body throughout freshman year. 

If you find that your body image and relationship with food is getting worse throughout freshman year (due to the Freshman Fifteen or in general), you can seek help here. I reached out when I struggled with my weight and body image, and it honestly saved my life.