UNC Health Talk

UNC eating-disorders expert: The ‘freshman 15’ is only a ‘freshman five’

For college students, the campus dining hall offers a tantalizing feast: ice-cream sundaes every night, thirty varieties of cereal and a limitless supply of french fries.

“It’s like a smorgasbord on a cruise ship,” said Cynthia Bulik, PhD, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the UNC School of Medicine.

All-you-can-eat dining halls, along with changes in exercise habits, have been blamed for the “freshman 15,” in which first-year students gain weight.

But Bulik said recent research suggests that the average student gains only five pounds in the first year of college. And a 2008 study published in the journal Health Psychology found that the male students who gain weight generally do so because of an increase in muscle mass.

“The ‘freshman 15’ isn’t actually a freshman 15,” Bulik said.

Meanwhile, Bulik said many young adults, especially women, pressure themselves to lose unhealthy amounts of weight before college begins. That’s unfortunate, she said, because the months before college should be a time for establishing healthy eating and exercising patterns.

“You want to go into college as healthy and robust as you possibly can.”

“You want to go into college as healthy and robust as you possibly can,” she said.

Once they get to college, young people are confronted with a new group of peers to whom they can compare themselves. For students who are already concerned about their weight, that can trigger or worsen an eating disorder, Bulik said.

In response to that phenomenon, members of the Tri Delta sorority founded an annual “fat-talk free” week, which takes place each October. The program raises awareness of the negative effects of “fat talk,” which includes comments such as “You look great. Have you lost weight?” and “She’s too fat to wear that swimsuit.”

“That’s the kind of thing that anyone can get involved in or start,” Bulik said of the program.

In the meantime, it’s important for every student to remember the healthy eating habits they learned growing up, said Eliana Perrin, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine. That means plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grain breads, lean meats, and foods that contain calcium, such as dairy products and green, leafy vegetables, she said.

Exercise, too, is critical.

“Even just a daily brisk walk with a friend can be a wonderful study break and really helps you re-energize,” Perrin said. “It’s important for everyone to stay active, particularly through stressful times.”


As much as possible, maintain a regular meal schedule. “Your body really loves predictability and regularity,” Bulik said. And avoid midnight pizza: “Those extra meals really add up,” she said.

Before you get a tray, look around at the food available. Then make a decision about what you’ll eat and stick to it.

If you find yourself piling your dining-hall tray with food every meal, try making what Bulik calls “a plate-less reconnaissance mission.” Before you get a tray, look around at the food available. Then make a decision about what you’ll eat and stick to it.

At the same time, “remember that who you are is so much more than your body,” Bulik said. “Don’t think that your success in college either academically or socially is just related to your weight and shape.”

Most colleges provide help to students with eating disorders. At UNC-Chapel Hill, you can call a Campus Health Services registered dietitian at 919-966-3658 for individual appointments. And if you notice that a roommate or classmate has an unhealthy relationship with food, “be a friend and get them help,” Bulik said.