Elyse Boldizar headshot

Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of eating disorders.

Littered throughout every student’s college experience is a phrase that brings more harm than good. Since the ‘80s, people have used the term “Freshman 15” to describe the general trend of weight gain among college first-years. While it’s usually said as a joke, the term “Freshman 15” harms students by spreading misguided information, adding unnecessary stress to an already overwhelming transition and exacerbating pre-existing eating disorders.

Looking back at the origin of the Freshman 15, the first time the term was used was in 1989 in a “Seventeen” magazine issue. The issue was referencing earlier studies that showed a trend in college students gaining weight. The term started with innocent intent: to educate newly independent teens on healthy eating habits. But as more and more publications started using the term, Freshman 15 turned into a running joke.

One of the biggest problems with the term is its total inaccuracy. According to multiple studies, college students gain closer to 2.5-6 pounds over all four years. New autonomy over their eating habits and an increase in alcohol consumption has long been blamed as a reason for this college weight gain. The reality is that these 2.5-6 pounds represent the average amount 16-20 year-olds gain naturally each year, whether they attend college or not. The term Freshman 15 taps into the misconception that weight gain is always a bad thing, overlooking how weight gain in college is a natural sign of healthy maturation. 

Making new friends, keeping up with classes, learning to navigate campus, the transition to college is full of challenges and can be stressful for many. However, as a first-year, I can already tell these are all necessary growing pains. Going through them will eventually make me a better, more well-rounded person. However, a stressor that won’t add to my personal growth is the fear I will gain weight as a freshman. Instead, it just distracts from the excitement of starting college. There are so many better things to focus on in college. New opportunities, new friends and new independence shouldn’t be overshadowed by unhealthy fear about weight.

Sure, Freshman 15 is mostly said as a joke. Nonetheless, it can be especially damaging to those who struggle with pre-existing eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Research shows up to 20% of women and 10% of men experience an eating disorder in college. The phrase may not seem like a big deal, but it spreads a harmful message. According to the Child and Mind Institute, “Eating disorders develop when the need to feel control over a stressful environment is channeled through food restriction, over-exercise, and an unhealthy focus on body weight.” The stressful transition to college can make students especially susceptible to eating disorders. 

The transition to college in particular is a big one. Leaving your family and friends can be disorienting. One minute you are a high school senior living at home, the next you are a college freshman, challenged to create a home for yourself in an entirely new place. The obsession over the Freshman 15 throws an unhelpful, potentially dangerous wrench into an already overwhelming experience. 

There is nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthier. But the term Freshman 15 perpetuates a negative connotation with health, based on fear over facts. If we truly want to live healthier, more balanced lives, let’s spread accurate information. Let’s do away with the Freshman 15 myth. 

If you or someone you know struggles with eating disorders or unhealthy relationships to food, please visit NC State’s Counseling Center to take advantage of their resources. 

NC State Student Health offers nutrition counseling for those with eating disorders and disordered eating behavior. Appointments can be made via the HealthyPack portal or by calling 919-515-2563.