How to Not Get Fat in College

Written by Ian McCarthy, Jared Bichler, and Anthony Hammock

You’ve probably heard it more than once: “Watch out for the freshman fifteen.”, or, “Wow, the freshman fifteen really hit them hard!” For those who don’t know, 'the freshman fifteen' refers to the tendency for students to gain fifteen pounds over the course of their freshman year of college. Although research demonstrates the phenomenon of gaining fifteen or more pounds in the first year of college is actually relatively rare (affecting only ~5% of students), it also confirms most college students do gain at least some weight in that period, with the average weight gain being ~3.86 pounds (1)(2)(3).

It’s no mystery as to why this fat gain can happen easily during your first year of college: you go to more parties than usual (which tends to mean more food and alcohol consumption), college fees paired with student loans reduce your diet to cafeteria food and top ramen, and you don’t move around as much because you’re busy sitting in class or studying. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to help prevent, or at least minimize, the ‘freshman fifteen’:


1) Weigh yourself

Fascinatingly, a recent study (4) found that subjects instructed to weigh themselves daily (ultimately weighing themselves an average of six days per week) decreased their estimated daily energy intake by an average of 505 kcals, increased their estimated daily energy expenditure by an average of 236 kcals, and lost an average of 6.55% of their bodyweight over a six-month period, despite not being instructed to alter their diet or exercise habits.

Additionally, at the end of the six-month study, subjects were asked to rate how they felt about weighing themselves in terms of each of the following descriptors or characteristics on an 8-point scale, with 8 indicating strongest agreement with a given descriptor, or the greatest possible degree of a negative effect, as appropriate, and 1 indicating strongest disagreement with a given descriptor, or the least possible degree of a given negative effect, as appropriate. The average results were as follows:

Easy to do: 6.9/8

Easy to remember: 7.2/8

Helpful: 6.9/8

Positive: 6.3/8

Likelihood that subjects would continue weighing after study: 6.6/8

Degree of frustration from daily weighing: 2.4/8

Degree of anxiety from daily weighing: 3.1/8

Degree of self consciousness from daily weighing: 3.2/8

It's important to note this study did not completely isolate daily weighing as a variable; at the beginning of the study, subjects in the intervention (daily weighing) group were provided information relating to energy balance and how to establish an energy deficit with the use of Caloric restriction and exercise. As such, the study fails to demonstrate that daily weighing, in the absence of a basic knowledge of how to lose weight, will itself generate weight loss. However, the study's control group received the same information as did the intervention group, and nonetheless failed to produce results even 20% as positive as those generated in the intervention group. This suggests the combination of daily weighing and weight loss education has a synergistic effect, which is why we recommend daily weighing be combined with the other tips contained in this article.

Although this study did not seek to determine the mechanisms by which daily weighing (when combined with weight loss education) results in weight loss, we speculate it 1) provides information about which subjects would otherwise be unaware, 2) provides positive reinforcement in the case of weight loss, and 3) provides negative reinforcement in the case of weight gain. These three factors, on their own or when combined, may motivate better decisions relating to food intake and exercise, ultimately generating an energy deficit, and thus, weight loss.

Please note that if you have a history of eating disorders or struggle with body image, it may do more harm than good to weigh yourself consistently.

2) Get off your ass

Ultimately, weight loss is a function of generating an energy deficit - in other words, ensuring the quantity of energy you expend each day exceeds the quantity of energy you consume (5). While it is generally easier to reduce one’s energy intake than it is to increase one’s energy expenditure to an equivalent degree (is it easier to simply avoid eating a snack-bag of Doritos, or to perform fifteen minutes of cardio to account for eating that bag of Doritos?), exercise is nonetheless a valuable contributing factor to weight loss or weight maintenance in most cases. Exercising allows you to eat more while maintaining a given energy deficit, eat more without creating an energy surplus, or create a larger energy deficit without eating less, depending on context. Note this says nothing of the health benefits of exercise, which are profound.

So, join an athletic club, go to the campus gym with a friend, explore campus a few times per week. Do something to start using more energy throughout the day. Note that we recommend straying away from extremes in either dietary or exercise protocols, as, in our experience, radical diet and exercise changes, albeit often exciting and effective initially, are usually unsustainable, and ultimately produce results which pale in comparison to those generated by smaller, more manageable changes implemented over a longer period of time.

If you’re concerned that exercising more will increase your food intake, consider the fact a systematic review done on this topic (6) found Ninety-four percent of acute, 57% of short-term, 100% of non-randomized and 74% of randomized trials found no effect of exercise on macronutrient intake. Forty-six percent of cross-sectional trials found lower fat intake with increased physical activity.” In short, you shouldn’t be concerned with exercise increasing your energy intake, but you also shouldn’t be using increased activity as a justification to eat more food than usual; it’s not difficult for an increase in energy intake, caused by poor food choices, to override the increase in energy expenditure caused by the addition of exercise (return to the Doritos example discussed above).

Speaking of which...

3) Stop reaching for the pizza

In the absence of directly tracking your caloric/macronutrient intake, one of the best things you can do to avoid gaining weight is to consume foods which enhance satiety, and thus naturally result in you eating less. Foods to consume ad libitum (to satisfaction) include foods which are high in protein (6), foods which are moderate in fat (7), foods which contain a significant quantity of fiber (8), and foods with low energy density (9).

Examples of foods to consume ad libitum:

Lean meats (e.g. grilled chicken breast, lean ground turkey breast, lean ground beef)

Whole grains (e.g. oatmeal, wholewheat pasta, plain or low-calorie popcorn)

Fruit and vegetables (including plain potatoes)

Examples of foods to consume in moderate quantities:

Foods which are simultaneously high in both carbohydrate and fat, e.g.:

Pizza (including: cheese pizza, pepperoni pizza, sausage pizza, other pizza), cake, donuts, french fries, etc.

Calorie-containing beverages, including fruit juice, non-diet soda, etc.

Keep in mind the above lists present only examples of foods in each category. For a more comprehensive satiety index of common foods, click here.

4) Don't be an alcoholic

It seems alcohol consumption has become a fundamental part of the college experience. Unfortunately, it can promote fat gain in at least three ways: 1) alcoholic beverages contain Calories, both in the form of carbohydrates, and in the form of alcohol itself (which contains ~7kcal per gram), 2) by increasing appetite acutely (10), which can result in overeating, and 3) by negatively affecting sleep quality (11), which can result in more sustained increases in appetite.

This provides a compelling case for minimizing your alcohol consumption. However, we recognize it's unrealistic to expect college students in general to avoid drinking, or to drink in only extremely limited quantities, so we've developed some tips for mitigating the damage done by drinking:

1. If you know you’re going to be attending a social event at which you will be drinking a lot, minimize eating for most of the day leading up to the event. This way, you will simply replace the Calories you would normally have from food with Calories from alcohol. For those desiring a more specific recommendation, we suggest reducing your carbohydrate and fat intake prior to drinking, and instead focusing on consuming high-quality protein, vegetables, and fruit.

2. Eat a protein and fiber-rich meal prior to drinking. This will slow down the rate at which you body absorbs alcohol, resulting in delayed intoxication. On top of its blatantly obvious benefits, such as decreasing the likelihood you will involve yourself in a sex act you won't remember, this has the benefit of decreasing the likelihood you will binge on high-calorie foods. Our contention is that the weight gain usually attributed to alcohol consumption is attributable largely to excess food consumption caused by intoxication, rather than to the consumption of alcohol itself. To illustrate this point, consider the fact four full cans of the average full-strength craft brew contains 624 kcals, whereas four slices of a major pizza chain’s pepperoni pizza contain approximately 1280 kcals.

3. Beware mixed drinks. Many people combine alcohol with high-calorie beverages such as soda or fruit juice, resulting in increased energy intake. Mitigate the damage by using low-calories beverages such as diet sodas in place of their full-sugar equivalents.

4. Drink light beer. The average full strength craft brew has about 156 kcals per 12 oz bottle, while the average light beer has about 103 kcals per 12 oz bottle. This difference may sound insignificant, but if you were to have two people drink one beer per day (one drinking regular beer, one drinking light beer), the person drinking regular beer would gain on average 5.5 more pounds of fat per year. For reference, shots (~1.5 oz) average out to about 100 kcals.


5) Sleep

College students are notorious for undersleeping. In a recent study (12), over 70.6% of participants, consisting entirely of college students, were found to sleep less than eight hours per day. While the negative effects of sleep deprivation on energy levels and mental acuity are obvious, many don’t recognize it also encourages overeating. In one study (13), subjects sleep deprived for two days displayed significantly elevated markers of hunger and appetite, with appetite for high carbohydrate foods increasing to the greatest degree (figure below). In practice, this means that if you undersleep, all else being equal, you will eat more - even if you eat only to the point of feeling satisfied. In addition, sleeping less means spending more time awake, and spending more time awake, in an environment in which food is available, can lead to overeating. Avoid the direct and indirect effects of sleep deprivation on appetite by endeavoring to get a minimum of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.

6) Have an eating schedule

If you’re a person who fights to find time to eat between lectures and studying, it is imperative you stick to a consistent feeding schedule to prevent large sways in energy intake. By avoiding sporadic feeding schedules, you are able to better regulate hormones which influence appetite (14).





7) Eat a protein-rich breakfast

Instead of starting off your day by not eating, or simply grabbing a pack of Pop-Tarts, we recommend you consume a protein-rich breakfast. In a recent study (15), three groups were fed three different breakfast meals - one consisting of eggs, one consisting of cereal, and one consisting of croissants. It was found that the group which consumed eggs ate significantly less food at lunch and dinner compared to the other groups. The authors of this study concluded “The breakfast meal with the greatest effect on satiety and subsequent intake of energy was distinct in having the highest protein and lowest carbohydrate content relative to the other two breakfasts.” If you don’t have time to cook a protein-rich meal at breakfast, consider consuming a whey protein shake, as whey protein is very quick to prepare and has been shown to be effective in promoting satiety (16).


8) Actually eat vegetables

Everybody recommends this, but few actually do it. By increasing your vegetable intake, you are not only promoting acute satiety, but you are also likely decreasing energy intake for the day from other food sources (17). Additionally, vegetables contain various micronutrients which are essential to maintaining good health.


9) Get laid

In other words, make a conscious effort to reduce your stress. Zellner and colleagues conducted two experimental studies in an attempt to discern how highly stressed individuals alter their eating behaviors to alleviate their response to stress (18). One of the experiments confirms previous survey data, demonstrating that people who self-report as stressed are likely to consume foods, such as M&Ms instead of grapes, which they would otherwise avoid for weight loss or other health reasons. This, along with other data (19), seems to confirm the hypothesis that most people who self-report being stressed are more likely to consume foods which are hyper-palatable, hence increasing the potential for overeating and weight gain.

Additionally, a common means by which college students attempt to cope with stress is drug use - more specifically, alcohol use. 42.3% of subjects in one study acknowledged they consumed alcohol to cope with stress (20). Refer back to our fourth tip for discussion of the ways in which alcohol consumption can negatively affect body composition.

Going back to the somewhat facetious title of this point, literature does support the belief that sex is beneficial in mitigating the physiological response to stress (21). Amusingly, in one study, approximately 2/3 of subjects who viewed pornography showed significantly decreased markers of stress (22).


10) Stop hanging out with your shitty friends

This is arguably the most important point in this entire article. If you find yourself spending time with people who consistently encourage you to make decisions detrimental to your health and general well-being, consider reevaluating the value of having them in your life. Everyone in the self-improvement world knows the classic saying “You’re the average of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time”, and there is certainly merit to that. Take an inventory, and consider kicking some people to the curb.



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