This week on Twitter, lots of people were sharing their sage advice for students starting their freshman year soon. Amidst the tips about not registering for an 8 a.m. lecture, and actually reading the course syllabus, people suggested some health tips, such as, get a flu shot and find a therapist. When it comes to health advice advice for freshmen, one thing that almost always comes up is how not to gain the freshman 15, or the 15 pounds of weight that you allegedly put on during your first year of college.
As we’ve said before, the freshman 15 isn’t real — in fact, it was made up by Seventeen magazine in the ‘80s, and probably only caught on because it’s a catchy alliterated phrase. Some studies have debunked the phenomenon entirely, finding that most people only gain about one pound during their freshman year of college. (Not to mention, your weight can fluctuate between five and 10 pounds from day to day.) But that hasn’t stopped people from perpetuating the myth of the freshman 15 and painting it as the Big Bad Wolf of college.
Here’s the thing: bodies are supposed to change, it’s literally an indication that you’re alive, explains Anna Sweeney, MS, RD, CDN, CEDRD-S, owner of Whole Life Nutrition, who works with individuals struggling with eating disorders. The ironic thing is that nobody would wish to go back to their 15-year-old self from a developmental standpoint, but yet many people yearn to go back to how their bodies looked as teenagers, she adds. Unfortunately, diet culture has led us to believe that "a changing body is a body that’s a problem," which is why the freshman 15 has had so much staying power over the years, she says.
For today’s Gen Z college students, social media adds a complex layer to the way that people assess information and determine what an idealized body standard might "look like." Between photo-editing apps and near constant documentation, it’s common for people to feel like they have to adapt their lifestyle in order to share their perfectly crafted image with their friends, Sweeney says. And when people are taught that their body can’t visibly change when they go away to school, it instills a lot of fear around weight-gain and food choices, she says. "When someone is in that hyper-vigilant state, what makes me the most concerned is that people stop listening to their bodies," she says.
Figuring out how to feed yourself for the first time on your own can be a new challenge. But if you’re spending a lot of time stressing out about what you’re eating and how much you’re exercising, you shift from making decisions from a body-driven place, to a cognitive one, Sweeney says. "We’re no longer listening to and trusting our bodies as we did as children," she says. "Now we’re trying to override those intrinsic messages that are there if we listen to them." That sort of negative thinking can turn into a pattern, and can be disruptive to your life, she says.
The best thing you can do — as a freshman, or just in life — is walk away from comparison, and instead check in with your body. When you walk into the cafeteria, do some "sensory evaluation," and think about what it is you’re hungry for, Sweeney suggests. For example, do you want something sweet or savory? Something that’s crunchy or soft? Warm or cold? Are you hungry for a snack or a full meal? These check-ins can help you look at food from a non-judgmental perspective, she says. "Be really curious, instead of basing your decisions on what your friend is doing next to you," she adds.
So, what advice would Sweeney give to college students? “Trust that our bodies aren’t going to mess with us — they’re here to take good care of us,” she says. "If we’re able to attend to them, they’ll tend to us right back." Also, recognize that the photos you see on Instagram aren’t representative of real life at all, they’re just capturing idealized moments, she says. "Be gentle and generous with yourself," she adds.