Beginning college is an exciting and stressful time for most students. The anticipation of a new town, new campus and new friends brings all kinds of feelings, a majority of which are happy ones. All too often this excitement is tainted by warnings of weight gain in the form of the “Freshman 15.” Well-meaning older peers and family members warn you to “watch what you eat in the dining halls,” or outright suggest that you “don’t eat ‘x’ because you’ll gain weight,” as if such a biologically natural and necessary lifelong process is the worst thing that can happen to you. Well, I have news for you. Weight gain as a college student is natural, most times harmless and honestly, it should be the least of your concerns. The notion that weight gain stops at the age of 18 and that your teenaged high-school body is to be maintained for life needs to go.
Let’s breakdown the fear and anxiety that comes along with the dreaded “Freshman 15” for what it really is — negative and anxious feelings toward weight gain as a result of a fatphobic society that has ingrained a mantra of “thin equals healthy and attractive” while being in a larger body is seen as unhealthy, undesirable and carries underlying assumptions about the person, namely that they are lazy. Yet, the fears surrounding this old myth are uncalled for.
Not only is the saying an exaggeration, with the average weight gain being 2.5-3.5 pounds during the first year of college, it is also inaccurate to assume weight gain automatically equals unhealthy, overweight or “fat.” Even if one wanted to go by the BMI standard — which is misleading for its own reasons — a 2.5-pound weight gain, in the approximate average range, barely nudges one’s BMI. So, if you’re in the “healthy” category, odds are you’re going to remain right there. Even if one were to gain the “15 pounds” as the saying goes, it’s also entirely possible and common to remain within the “healthy” category. For example, a 19-year-old female with a BMI of 21 can gain 15 pounds and end up at a BMI of 23.5 which is still a “healthy” BMI, dependent on the height. However, I’d like to go beyond BMI since, as I said before, there are many reasons as to why it’s not an accurate measure of health.
For one, the categories of “overweight” and “obese” are so ambiguous and lacking in evidence. In fact, in 1998, the categories changed, and as a result, millions became “overweight” or “obese” overnight — something the diet industry has made billions off of. Some may be shocked to learn that more studies are showing that being “overweight” can be perfectly healthy. A meta-analysis of a bunch of studies found that individuals who are underweight have a greater risk of death than individuals falling under the “obese” category.
Yet, no one criticizes very thin-bodied people the same way they do larger-bodied folks. It’s actually the opposite — an immense glorification of very thin-bodied people that more often than not is praise toward an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors. So, this supposedly “well-intended” advice given to young adults under the guise of “health” does nothing to support health since health is not a number. The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, which encompasses the principles of Intuitive Eating, is growing and so is the research backing it. If anything, warnings against the “Freshman 15” are way more hurtful than helpful and send diet culture messages that weight gain is inherently bad and unattractive — that we should actively be trying to suppress our body weight or pursue weight loss. No wonder eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors are rampant on campuses.
What’s most frustrating about the “Freshman 15” message is the assumption that the weight you are at on the day of your high school graduation is somehow the weight you must be at during college, and pretty much the rest of your life. This is absolutely absurd. Young adults are actively growing and developing well into their mid-20s, so ill-advised measures projected on them to suppress their body weight do much more harm and zero good.
Furthermore, more research in support of set point theory has come forward, supporting the theory’s belief that every individual has a pre-disposed set weight range in which their body functions optimally, and the body will actively fight to maintain this range. This is not to say that everyone’s setpoints will abide by the BMI standards. It would be foolish to think that every unique individual should be in a certain BMI range because that’s what’s healthiest for them. Who are we, as a society, to determine that? Some people’s setpoint ranges are within the “healthy” category, and plenty of others are within the “underweight” or “overweight” categories. In terms of those in the “underweight” group specifically, the difference here is that one whose natural set weight range is in this category maintains their weight without effort, meaning without dietary restriction and/or the abuse of exercise to keep that weight. Even if they purposefully pushed themselves to overeat for a period of time, it would be just as unsustainable as is undereating for a period of time (cough, cough, diet).
So, what to do? Surely, there must be some nutrition advice people must abide by, and surely, we must exercise. Well, yes and no. The forceful mindset of this statement is all wrong. What almost everyone gets wrong about the HAES movement is that it promotes obesity, and not only permits but encourages people to eat “junk” foods 24/7 and never exercise again. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The movement champions the idea that one can pursue health at any weight by listening to their body and eating intuitively. Our bodies crave balance by nature, so while some may find they crave the calorically dense foods deemed “unhealthy” by society on some days, accepting that craving and meeting it is the best thing to do, and often results in the body craving more traditionally nutritious foods at other times. Full body trust is crucial.
HAES also encourages people to partake in physical movement that they enjoy and that feels good. By taking a step away from mainstream fitness (and diet) culture, which pushes “working out” on people as something they have to do on the daily, movement becomes more appealing and enjoyable. It’s no longer confined to a gym or high-pressure environment. Instead, it includes walks or hikes with friends or playing tennis with a partner. All in all, if health is one’s true concern, then focusing on a number on a scale is a micro piece of the puzzle and largely irrelevant. Most times, it leads to poorer health as a result of unsustainable dieting measures. The best thing to target is behaviors, and that’s exactly what HAES supports by encouraging people to tune into their individual body’s needs and explore movement, with the goal to adopt healthy movement as an enjoyable, recurring practice.
The healthiest thing for us college students, then, is to skip over the years of pointless and unhealthy dieting entirely and start practicing the principles of HAES and Intuitive Eating now.
Nyla Booras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.