Beware of the Freshman 15

First-years during Orientation Week explore campus. (Source: Catherine Owsik)

By Sarah Banks

Your first year at university or college is all about the excitement of moving out, starting your own life and meeting new people. There are many opportunities awaiting you – but lets not forget that gaining the ‘Freshman Fifteen’ is among them.

The ‘Freshman Fifteen’ is the notion that many first-year students gain weight during their school year, specifically around 15 pounds. It’s no surprise that students can gain a bit of weight during their time away at school … moving out means Mom isn’t making dinner anymore (she’s been substituted with a buffet), exercise is not priority for many in their new life and getting to know your new friends over a meal or drink is always inviting. It’s actually often easier to socialize over a meal or drink because when a conversation begins to die there is food there waiting to be put in your mouth so you look busy. But don’t take that note as a tip. In my first year I eluded the extra poundage, and now I am going to give you some tips and ideas to help you steer clear of that dreaded fifteen and overall, how to stay healthy and happy.

Stress and Controlling your Cortisol

You have moved to a new environment, where you may not know anyone, and now you have to live here for a minimum of eight months — that’s pretty scary. Furthermore, once you overcome that initial fear of leaving your comfort zone, midterms and exams come full force. It’s plain to see that university is just crawling with little stressors. When your body is stressed it produces more cortisol, which is a hormone that is normally present in the body but increases during stressful “fight or flight” situations. If you have high levels of cortisol for a prolonged period of time, such as if you are extremely nervous or stressed, you can experience lower immunity, impaired cognition (learning skills), suppressed thyroid functions (which may affect your metabolism) and blood sugar imbalances. All these factors influence how your body processes the food you eat.  Ultimately, your body will store more food resulting in weight gain… especially if you stress-eat. However, there are ways to teach yourself to de-stress, which can knock your body back out of “survival” mode: try relaxing activities such as yoga, breathing techniques (breathe in for three seconds and out for 5 seconds) and any exercise to release some of the pent up stress and hormones.

Choose Healthy Snack and Food Options

You just learned that you get to eat at a buffet for every meal — you walk in and see burgers, fries, ice cream, salad, breads, pasta, chocolate milk, pizza, cookies … and think “Wow, I can have pizza every day! Take that, Mom!”. There you go, an extra 15 pounds in no time. There are so many tempting food options that it’s no wonder freshmen gain weight. It may sound obvious, but what you need to do is actually pay attention to what you are putting on your plate. Try and eat unhealthy items (by this, I mean anything covered in grease or sauce) only a few times a week and make sure you get variety in your diet so that you get the vitamins and nutrients you need. For example, even though pizza has tomato sauce, it isn’t exactly the nutritional substitute of a tomato (which is high in vitamins A and C). You can even head to a nearby grocery store, such as the Grocery Checkout Fresh Market located in the Queen’s Centre, and buy yourself fixings for a salad or turkey breast sandwich that you can make in residence instead of heading to the cafeteria  — this will save your belly and still are delicious.

At first changing your diet may be challenging, but it takes roughly 21 days to get into a routine, so be patient. If you are craving sweet try eating naturally sweet foods like fruits; a handful of trail mix with dried fruit is satisfying and keeps you full. Make pizza healthier with thin, multigrain crust and add veggies as toppings instead of greasy meats. And if you need that bag of chips try veggie or sweet potato chips.

Portion Control

The café allows a buffet at every meal! That means that with all those unhealthy options you may get caught up with eating too much of them (unlimited ice cream sounds AMAZING). Unfortunately, your body and mind will not be thanking you for that later. When it comes to treating yourself to sweet snacks, you don’t have to completely boycott them but ensure you have a single serving at a time. One scoop of ice cream or one waffle with toppings is really all you need to satisfy your craving without having to make another belt hole in your belt. Also, only eat these things once a day and preferably only a couple times a week.

Proper serving sizes are surprisingly small. A serving of bread is the size of a cassette tape, pasta should be the size of a tennis ball, a potato the size of a small fist and meat portions are about the size of your palm. It is obvious that many of us are over-eating at several meals throughout the day.


Queen’s offers intramural sports that allow you to meet new people and stay active throughout the year. Whether you are a social butterfly or nervous to meet people this is a great way to combine exercise with a good social time. You can find a list of teams and information on how to sign up at  If team sports are not your thing then the Queen’s Athletics and Recreation Centre (ARC, as it is more commonly known) is another great option. The ARC has treadmills with screens (so you can watch television shows or even read pdf notes while working out), rowing machines, elliptical machines, weights, and really anything you would want to fulfil your workout needs. There is also a Women’s Only Room , the Marion Ross Room on level three of the ARC, for any girls that would like some more privacy. Furthermore, there are many fun classes that can be extremely hard but satisfying at the same time — the first week of class always offers free trials for these classes, so I highly suggest everyone to try some out. Classes include anything from spin classes to yoga to Zumba.  It costs $87.61 for a membership to access ALL classes throughout the week for one term.

Finally, when you go downtown, walk. Walking gets put on the backburner when people think of exercise, but it’s actually one of the most effective weight management tools we have. Walking has been proven to improve cognition, strengthen ones heart and maintain bone density due to it being a “body weight” exercise. It’s not as hard on your joints as jogging, yet a brisk walk reaps similar benefits to jogging. This is because walking at 3.1 mph or faster increases your stride length, which requires additional energy to propel your body forward. Also, when you walk at this pace you have to twist your torso and swinging your arms, meaning several body parts are active (including abs). These changes raise the aerobic demands of regular walking and  allows one to burn more calories  (a 130 lb person burns about 220-260 calories an hour when walking approx. 3.0 MPH). Give it a try and see how your heart will be pumping and breath will be shorter in no time. And it’s likely that wherever you go in Kingston, it’s very easy to walk there (I’m looking at you, West Campus)! Nothing is more than fifteen minutes away and it is a great way to see Kingston and enjoy your stay.

Alcohol (for 19+)

You are living on your own and are free to do as you please… this means that many of you who are of legal drinking age are going to be indulging in some alcohol. But beware, alcohol contains a lot of empty calories — this means after you consume it, you get the calories but no significant nutrition. One beer has a whopping average of 150 calories, and one glass of wine has 100 (and remember, mixed drinks are often packed with sugary mixers which can load calories as well). Furthermore, when a person drinks alcohol they are very likely to finish off the night with some fast food (the downtown hub is crammed full of tempting locations), which just adds more calories to an already full day of eating. However, you should NEVER drink alcohol on an empty stomach; food slows alcohol absorption which is important if one happens to be consuming large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time. So, don’t limit your meals because you are planning on drinking later in the night. Just think of a drink as a desert or two. Ultimately, with alcohol be conscious of how much you are consuming and always be careful.

Also, women have fewer alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) enzymes; these compounds are found in your stomach and aid with the initial breakdown of alcohol. Because women are generally smaller than men to begin with, and cannot breakdown alcohol as efficiently or quickly, they will often become drunk much faster on the same amount of alcohol as men. So ladies, if someone is nagging you about being a ‘cheap drunk’, it is genetic — and it’s dangerous to try and prove them wrong.

Welcome to Queen’s — you are on your own, so all these factors are now up to you to control. You are the only reason you will either remain healthy or not. And remember, the ‘Freshman Fifteen’ does not only apply to first years, throughout your entire four-(or more)-year stay you are always likely to put on a little bit of weight. So always keep these tips in mind; if your body is healthy, your mind will be healthy.


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