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The 'Freshman 15' Means More Than Weight Gain

The stresses of Freshman year can make students turn to food for comfort.
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WebMD Feature

It's difficult to imagine a standard coming-of-age experience that involves more change, more stress, and more personal challenge than Freshman year of college.

That food might become a way for many to deal with those stresses is hardly surprising. Weight gain in the first year of college, often jokingly referred to as the "Freshman 15" (meaning pounds), is so common it has become a cliché. The fact that this Freshman weight gain is so commonplace disguises the fact that it is often a sign of a young person having difficulty coping with the stresses of a new life.

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"Food becomes a way to exert control for many Freshmen when they feel little control in many areas of their lives," Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, tells WebMD. "I work with young people all the time who have gotten into poor lifestyle choices and a disordered way of eating."

"These are serious issues," says Carol Holland, DrPH, an associate professor and a psychologist in the counseling center at Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania, tells WebMD. "Gaining 10 or 15 pounds isn't always a big deal, but it could be a sign that a young person does not have the coping skills needed given the stresses [he or she is] under. That's something parents want to be aware of."

Emotional Eating

"For many students, college life is starting over from square one," says Holland, who is also a spokesman for the American College Counseling Association. "They have all new friends, academic demands, boy-girl relationships, money worries, and easily available alcohol. They come in thinking that, 'Oh, it can't be that much different,' but quickly they are neck deep into a real time of difficult transformation."

Overeating, says Holland, can place all these stresses at a distance. Socialization is easier when food is around. Calorie-dense alcohol can stand in for self-confidence. Holland calls this "emotional eating."

"They don't have the support system of friends, family, and activities that they had in high school, so they use what's available, namely food, to self-soothe," she adds.

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