Thrive on Campus//

What They Don’t Tell You About the “Freshman 15”

"In a new environment where you’re surrounded by different stressors, you’ll look for the one thing you can control."

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

In a world where young adults are warned about the “freshman 15” before going off to college, National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) employee Paige Sklar, 22, says that the myth is a scare tactic used to prevent young adults from the possibility of gaining weight while away at school.

“You’re set up with this idea immediately that you have to restrict your diet in order to remain in control,” Sklar says. “In a new environment where you’re surrounded by different stressors, you’ll look for the one thing you can control and for young adults who are just learning to fend for themselves, that means their eating habits.”

For majority of new college students, going away is the first time they are faced with being responsible for monitoring their own nutrition. Because of this, friends and family provide jokes about gaining the “freshman 15,” which Sklar explains could be doing more harm than good.

According to a 2013 study, NEDA finds that the “freshman 15” myth, is in fact, just that: a myth.  Using a nationally representative random survey, researchers found that new college students gain between 2.5 to 3.5 pounds, on average, weighing in only a half pound more than their peers who did not attend college.    

“Given the risks that dieting poses, especially to college students, anti–obesity campaigns on college campuses are not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful,” NEDA reports.

For Sklar, her eating disorder began in her junior year of high school and followed her to college.

“I was at a time in my life where I was about to enter this new environment and I needed to gain some control over it,“ Sklar explains.

Sklar’s original intentions after high school were to serve in the army. She attended Middlesex Community College when she found NEDA and worked toward her own recovery, later using her experience to aid in the progress of others’ journeys.

“Even after I was recovered and went away to Drew University, I remember having to carefully make healthy choices with food,” she says. “It was something my peers experienced as well. We discussed how easy it was to make poor choices with the accessibility that a dining hall could offer.”

Sklar explains that restriction was about doing something that others couldn’t.

“With time and recovery, I’ve come to realize that this was unhealthy but in the moment, I was comparing myself to others and wanted to gain some control of my life,” she says.

Full-blown eating disorders are most common in people ages 18 through 21. Sklar explains that this makes college students susceptible of falling victim to eating disorders.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines eating disorders as serious mental and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors.

The goals of NEDA and other organizations are to educate people on the importance of community and conversation.

“We always want to encourage young people to remember that even if they feel alone, they aren’t and that there is a whole community of people who are going through something similar,” Sklar says.

Sklar advises young adults to stay connected while at school. Whether it be by joining a club, or simply finding friends and advocates on Instagram, it’s important to seek out help and resources.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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