By Jordan Hearne
A common belief is that when students start college, they gain weight from the university lifestyle. In truth, this idea might actually be contributing to eating disorders across campus.
“Freshman 15 is a complete myth,” Dr. Emma Wood, staff psychologist in the Baylor Counseling Center, said. Wood, who specializes in body image problems and eating disorders, is ready to put an end to the rumor that freshman gain 15 pounds within their first year of college. Typically, students don’t gain weight at all their freshman year, and if they do, it is on average only seven pounds, she said.
“People come into college so scared of the freshman 15 that they’ll start to do things to counter that when they don’t even need to,” Wood said.
The rumor, along with other factors, contributes to the number of students who suffer from eating disorders.
“Freshmen are more vulnerable to the beginning of disordered eating behavior,” Wood said. “Some of the things that we know are associated with the development of eating disorders are stressful life situations. That transition to school might be one of the things that trigger it.”
Another factor can be confusion about how to live a healthy lifestyle.
“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about college life, about how to eat and exercise,” Wood said. “People will come in thinking ‘okay im going to eat less and exercise more’, and it becomes a vehicle to become addictive and lead to a full-blown eating disorder.”
Dorm life can influence body image problems. Residents see the bodies of their roommates on a daily basis and “begin to compare,” Wood said. These elements, combined with the freshman 15 myth, can cause students to favor skinny over healthy.
“You can be skinny and unhealthy,” Lori Genous, director of Baylor’s department of wellness, said. She said that you cannot tell how much body fat someone has by looking at a person; people considered thin can have visceral fat surrounding their organs, which can pose a higher risk for disease.
Wood explained that people’s body shapes can fall on a bell curve, with the widest part of the curve consisting of average-sized bodies. The smaller ends of the curve can contain naturally small people and naturally large people. Their shapes are determined largely on their genetics and will always stay around the same size.
Eating disorders do not only affect body size. Wood said academic grades could suffer, and according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders can lead to pancreatitis, osteoporosis and kidney failure. Eating disorders are the most fatal of all mental disorders. Warning signs of potential eating disorders are students that suddenly become obsessed with their body and weight and preoccupy themselves with making their bodies smaller.
“Another trend we have seen a lot of is over exercising, sometimes referred to as exercise bulimia,” Wood said.
Examples of this would be people exercising for prolonged periods of time, despite injury or illness, and being obsessive about sticking to an exercise routine in order to purge calories.
“Warning signs would be someone exercising for extended periods of time or running while injured,” Wood said. “They tend to stick to a routine and have to get their workouts in every day.”
The most effective and long-lasting treatment for an eating disorder is some form of psychotherapy or counseling, the NEDA website states. The Baylor Counseling Center is located in the McLane Student Life Center and has resources to assist recovery. Their website, has online mental health screenings and contact information to schedule an appointment.
Genous recommended on-campus peer nutritionists to help teach students how to eat healthily. Nutritional education can prevent students from falling into dangerous eating habits, especially when they are just beginning to plan their own meals. Wood said that most freshmen grow up in families where parents supervised meals and controlled what was provided.
“You come from a pretty structured environment in terms of food and nutrition to a place where it’s all up to you to choose,” Wood said.
For students looking for more information on how to maintain a balanced diet, there are on-campus peer nutritionists available. Information on how to schedule an assessment is on the website under Programs and Services.
More information can be found at the NEDA website, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.