What Causes the Freshman 15?

What's Behind New College Students' Weight Gain

young woman weighing herself on stand-up scale

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It’s hard to be an incoming freshman and avoid hearing about the dreaded "freshman 15," a common term used to describe the weight that many incoming freshmen tend to gain during their first year in college. While the poundage doesn't always exactly ring in at fifteen, the tendency to gain weight is significant enough to earn itself a lasting title.

First, it's important to note that this specific amount of weight gain isn't common to everyone. Some people gain more weight, some less, and some gain no extra weight at all, or even lose pounds when they leave home for college for the first time.

However, it's a common enough experience that it has earned a nickname that has endured through several decades. Plus, it's something to be aware of so it can hopefully be avoided. What causes the notorious weight gain experienced by new college students? How can it be avoided? Let’s explore some of the underlying factors at play in the freshman 15.

New Eating Habits

When you’re living with parents and going to high school, many of the details of what, when and how much you eat are already planned out for you. Getting to college and having unlimited choices (and limited cooking experience) can make a diet of fast food, chips, soft drinks, and pizza at 3 a.m. commonplace. Several weeks of this can cause quick weight gain.

Eating While Studying

Many new college students find themselves in a position of doing less studying during class time (under the watchful eye of a teacher) and more studying on their own time when they can mindlessly snack on junk food for hours without anyone noticing. If you find yourself doing this, stop.

Think about what you’re really doing.

Eating large amounts of unhealthy food when you wouldn’t normally be hungry is not a good thing. Mindless eating when you're bored or engaged in another activity can lead to weight gain.

Eating Late at Night

Closely related to the eating-while-studying phenomenon is the eating-late-at-night habit that many incoming freshmen develop. You may naturally find yourself staying up later to study or party, and hunger may sneak up on you.

This sudden craving can lead to late-night eating, overeating, or binge eating. And, any of those behaviors can lead to weight gain.

Eating Snack Food

Often, the most convenient late-night food is fast food. In fact, fast food is a convenient choice for any time of day. If you’re not used to cooking your own meals or focused on making healthy choices when you buy your meals, it’s easy to fall into a diet of burgers, fries, and deep-fried nuggets, supplemented with chips and soft drinks.

If you want a real scare, check the nutritional information on these foods!

Emotional Eating

College life comes with many changes and challenges, including difficult classes, new relationships, and homesickness. Many people deal with emotional stresses like these with emotional eating, which includes eating when you’re not hungry or filling an emotional void with food. If you find yourself becoming an emotional eater, it’s time to stop emotional eating before you get closer to gaining the freshman 15.


Yes, many college students drink—even freshmen. This contributes to the freshman 15 in two ways. Alcoholic drinks tend to be high in calories. Additionally, alcohol can deteriorate muscle tissue, which lowers your overall metabolism.

So, in case you needed them, now you have more reasons to stay away from binge drinking.

Not Enough Exercise

Sure, trekking from class to class can be a workout. But it's not enough to keep you trim. Many college students find themselves busier than they were in high school, so there's less time to commit to regular exercise or be involved in other physical activities. This can be a big factor in the 15.​

Although it can be hard to find time for regular exercise, some form of exercise is good (for your mental and physical health) and that something is better than nothing. Maybe this is a good time to get creative with your workouts.

Regular workouts are also a great way to relieve school-related stress. Even a walk around campus or a walk on a treadmill while you review your notes is a good way to squeeze in some extra physical activity.

You’re At That Age

Many freshman 15 factors are under your control, but this one isn’t—your age. During the middle school and high school years, most teens are growing pretty quickly and staying active. The college years, however, generally occur in the first years of adulthood when most of a person’s physical growth is complete and some lifestyle habits may start to change.

This change can contribute to the other factors that cause weight gain, leading many people to start putting on weight for the first time in their lives. This is the perfect time to start developing habits that will help maintain a healthy lifestyle for years to come.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kinsey AW, Ormsbee MJ. The health impact of nighttime eating: old and new perspectives. Nutrients. 2015;7(4):2648–2662. Published 2015 Apr 9. doi:10.3390/nu7042648

  2. Jung MK, Callaci JJ, Lauing KL, et al. Alcohol exposure and mechanisms of tissue injury and repair. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2011;35(3):392–399. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01356.x

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.