From the moment you got accepted to college, people started telling you about the infamous Freshman 15. As if graduating high school wasn’t stressful enough, you were bombarded with horror stories of packing on weight once you move away from home.
Fast-forward to freshman year: you’ve managed to avoid greasy dining-hall pizza and have pushed yourself to make the trek to the gym a few times a week, but you look in the mirror and can’t help but notice that your jeans are significantly more snug than usual. What’s the deal?
What’s normal and what isn’t?
The usual suspects
Of course, the main reason for weight gain in collegiettes (and college students in general) is overeating and not getting enough exercise. “Many young people go from being very active with sports, etc., in high school years to being relatively inactive in college,” says Dr. Celeste Corcoran, who specializes in pediatric medicine at South County Hospital in Rhode Island. “This, along with changes in dietary habits, especially with the intake of fatty foods, fast foods and alcohol, will have a dramatic effect on weight gain.”
So how much weight gain is something to worry about? Well, according to Social Science Quarterly, the average freshman gains only 2.5 to 3.5 pounds during freshman year. It’s perfectly normal for your weight to fluctuate a few pounds at any given time, especially during periods of change in your life, like starting college.
If you do start eating more and exercising less at college, weight gain of up to five pounds can be normal, according to Dr. Corcoran, but gaining more than that during your first semester at college could point to a more serious problem, like a health condition.
What if you’re working out and eating healthily?
Gaining weight for any reason can be an uncomfortable and upsetting experience, but it can be even worse if you have a healthy diet, drink plenty of water and work out regularly but are still gaining weight. “There can be numerous reasons for weight gain, like medication side effects, depression, menopause, etc.,” says Brooke Schantz, a registered dietitian.
Fortunately, if you educate yourself about the most common medical reasons for weight gain and learn to recognize the symptoms, you can spot these health conditions early on and start treating or managing them so you can get back to loving life as a healthy collegiette!
Reason 1: Side effects from medication
Other than diet and exercise, medication is the most common cause of weight gain in collegiettes, especially “the birth control pill and some medications used to treat depression and mood disorders,” Dr. Corcoran says. Birth control pills and medications used to treat depression or anxiety can cause either weight gain or loss, depending on the individual and his or her own reaction with the medication.
“The first brand of the birth control pill that I went on made me gain 10 pounds in a month, which was terrifying,” says Alexa*, a junior at Middlebury College. “I tried a couple of different brands before I found one that didn’t give me mood swings or make me gain weight, and I’ve been on it ever since.”
If you experience weight gain when first starting the birth control pill, don’t panic! It’s very common and can typically be corrected by switching to another brand of birth control, or even to the non-hormonal IUD, which doesn’t affect your hormone levels (and you don’t have to set an alarm to remember to take your pill every day!).
While birth control is a common culprit, depression and anxiety meds can lead to weight gain as well. “I went on anxiety medication around the same time I left for college,” says Meredith*, a sophomore at the George Washington University. “I lost a few pounds and then started to gain so much weight out of nowhere.”
Meredith’s story is unfortunately common: According to WebMD, up to 25 percent of people who take antidepressants experience weight gain of 10 pounds or more. Anxiety or depression medications often cause an increase in appetite and a slowdown in metabolism, even if you lead an otherwise healthy life.
If you’re already on medication for a mood disorder or birth control and the only unpleasant side effect is weight gain, talk with your doctor about switching brands of medication, as different brands affect people in different ways. It’s important to remember that if your depression meds are working for you, you shouldn’t necessarily stop taking them just because of a few extra pounds. Be sure to discuss the options with your doctor before making any decisions regarding your medication.
Reason 2: Depression or anxiety
It’s important to note that depression or anxiety themselves can also cause weight gain because of increased appetite and decreased energy, which are the result of chemical reactions taking place in your brain. "Low neurotransmitter levels associated with depression and anxiety often lead to overeating in an attempt to numb the uncomfortable sensations,” says Catherine Garceau, a traveling health educator and speaker. “Eating the wrong foods feeds this vicious cycle, and depression or anxiety worsen.”
Indulging in some Ben & Jerry’s after a breakup or celebrating the end of finals week with some greasy pizza is one thing, but if you consistently turn to food for comfort and notice yourself gaining weight, be sure to talk to a doctor or licensed therapist if you feel you may be suffering from depression or anxiety.
Reason 3: Hypothyroidism
One of the most common causes of weight gain is hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is “a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain important hormones,” according to Mayo Clinic. The thyroid gland is located in the neck and plays a huge role in regulating metabolism, so when the thyroid is sluggish, it can lead to excessive weight gain of anywhere from 10 to 50 or more pounds.
If you think you might have an issue with your thyroid, consider these other signs: “Other symptoms to look for would be low energy, excessive hair loss and cold intolerance,” Dr. Corcoran says. If that sounds like you, definitely contact your health care provider to be tested for hypothyroidism. Luckily, hypothyroidism can be treated with thyroid hormone medication, and symptoms should disappear within a few months, according to WebMD, so you’ll be back to being the healthy, happy collegiette you are!
Reason 4: Celiac disease
While gluten-free diets are all the rage these days for college students looking to be healthier, a small percentage of people actually have celiac disease, “a gastrointestinal disorder that is caused by gluten intolerance,” Dr. Corcoran says.
According to Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten is a binding protein complex that acts as a glue to help foods maintain their shape. When people with celiac disease ingest gluten, it causes their bodies to have an immune response that damages their intestines, making it difficult to absorb necessary nutrients and often causing painful stomach problems. Gluten is found in pasta, bread, cereal, pastries and other foods containing certain grains, but can also be found in more unexpected foods, like beer and some brands of salad dressing and hot dogs.
While celiac disease is mostly known for causing stomach pain and discomfort related to gluten ingestion, it can also wreak havoc on the rest of your body. “I have also seen celiac disease cause either weight gain or weight loss,” Dr. Corcoran says.
Processed food created specifically to be gluten-free could also be a culprit. “I gained weight later in my gluten-free experience when gluten-free products became more accessible,” says Ashley*, a senior at Bucknell University. “I later learned that [some of] the food that is gluten-free, like pastas and gluten-free flour, etc., are the equivalent of eating really processed white bread. Basically, it turns right to sugar in your body.”
So what should you eat if you have to be gluten free? “Eating naturally gluten-free foods like meat, veggies, fruit, rice and quinoa is the best way to stay healthy while on a gluten-free diet,” Ashley says.
If you think you might have celiac disease, try to determine if your symptoms are worse when you consume certain foods, and be sure to talk to your health care provider. Keeping a food diary is a great way to track what is causing you stomach problems. There are also several apps, like mySymptoms, that can track your symptoms for you!
Reason 5: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
A less-well-known condition is polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. According to WebMD, PCOS is a condition in which cysts develop on a woman’s ovaries, causing hormone imbalances. PCOS can cause irregular menstruation, depression and significant weight gain.
“I was diagnosed with PCOS when I was 16,” says Rachel*, a junior at the University of Maryland. “It's very easy to gain weight and very difficult to shed the pounds.”
When you combine PCOS with lowered self-esteem as well as the college lifestyle, it can be very difficult for collegiettes to keep the weight off. “Between battling depression, university dining halls and PCOS, I've probably gained 60 pounds over the last four years,” Rachel says.
As there is currently no cure, it’s important to talk with your doctor as soon as possible to start managing your PCOS and establishing a routine. “Sometimes I'm able to lose 15 pounds at a time, but it just creeps back up the second my routine changes,” Rachel says.
If your appetite and workout regimens haven’t changed but you’re still gaining weight and you notice irregularities with your menstrual cycle (particularly that your period comes more infrequently or not at all), hair loss, acne or depression, it might be time to call your doctor or visit your university’s health clinic to find out if you suffer from PCOS.
With papers, lab reports, extracurriculars and friendships, juggling all the elements of college can be stressful even without the added concern of physical appearance. Add in unexplained weight gain, and even the most well-adjusted collegiette can feel vulnerable and insecure. Still, it’s important to remember that not all weight gain is due to an inactive or unhealthy lifestyle. If you can recognize the symptoms of these common medical conditions, you’ll be better prepared to tackle those extra pounds and get back to looking and feeling amazing on campus.
*Names have been changed.