It’s an enormous step for most students. It’s a time for change and new experiences. The beginning of university brings with it many new challenges—one of those being stress, and along with that, weight gain.

Stress is one of the biggest factors that contributes to unhealthy eating habits, resulting in a notorious phenomenon for many first-year students: the “freshman 15”.

Around campus, students and professionals shared their opinions about why students fall victim to the unnecessary weight gain.

Fatima Bulut, a fifth-year student who lives off campus, says she was someone who always liked to sleep in until the last minute possible, only giving herself enough time to get ready in the morning. Inconsistent sleeping patterns were one factor that triggered her weight gain.

“I never prepared breakfast or a lunch to take with me to school; buying fast food at school was easy,” she says. “For people with habits like mine and who have long days at school, it’s no wonder they would experience some weight gain. Even though I did minimal exercise, my diet was unhealthy.”

Bulut says that she thinks the freshman 15 exists because students feel they lack the time and organization to prepare healthy meals.

“Sometimes people just don’t like the hassle of carrying food around with them,” she adds. She believes the freedom that university gave her was the thing that affected her most. Her most important tip for first-year students is, “Don’t let freedom make you lazy!”

Tatiana Marie, a fourth-year student who struggled with the freshman 15, is now focused on leading a healthier lifestyle. Marie mentions that the concept of freshman 15 exists, although not necessarily the exact number.

“People gain anywhere from a few pounds to 20 pounds or more in their first year. The main reason behind this is, without a doubt, poor eating habits combined with little exercise. Being away from home or even staying on campus for hours on end means finding food that’s affordable and quick to attain,” she says. “Many students prefer the cheaper options to save money and don’t have the money for the healthier organic foods. As well, the added stress of studies can slow down your metabolism, making it hard for your body to break down fats.”

Marie has a suggestion for students who want to combat the extra pounds. “Find a way to exercise [every] day,” she says. “You might feel that you’re neglecting your studies when actually you’re allowing more blood to flow; over time, this increases your cardio and makes you feel more alert and energized, ready to tackle your textbooks.”

Kimberly Green, a registered dietician at UTM’s Health and Counselling Centre, understands what it takes to stay healthy through proper eating habits. “I’m a dietician, so I always stress that diet is important, but activity is important too. Unfortunately, because of our busy schedules, we don’t actually find time for exercise,” she says.

Green also notes the importance of portion size. “When we eat out, we tend to finish everything because we paid, and it’s expensive,” she explains. She says that when we eat at home, we tend to do better because we get to choose what we’re putting on our plates.

So what tips does she have for first-year students trying to be healthy? “The basic four food groups are important. I also use something called Balanced Plate—when you eat a meal, your plate should be a quarter protein, a quarter carbs, and half vegetables and fruits,” says Green.

Green believes the freshman 15 exists due to multiple factors. “It’s a combination of decreased activity—giving up sports for academics,” she says. “When people are on their own, it can be a lot more difficult to choose what’s best for you. The choice between costs also plays a huge role in eating healthy. Even if you end up buying a sandwich from on campus, bring some fruits and vegetables with you as snacks.”

The HCC offers student recipes and healthy eating handouts on its website. Students can also take part in one-to-one nutrition counselling that is offered free at the centre.