Studies show that most college students gain weight, especially during their first year.
A 2015 review of 32 studies found that more than 60% of college students gained weight during their freshman year. College freshmen in the study gained around 7.5 pounds (3.38 kg), on average (
The review also found that students gained weight at a much faster rate than the general population (
This is not surprising given that college students can have significantly different lifestyles than people who are not in college.
What causes college weight gain?
Changes in eating habits can significantly contribute to weight gain during college.
Research shows that college students tend to eat fewer nutritious foods, such as eggs and vegetables, and more highly processed and sugary items, such as doughnuts and fried foods. Plus, college students tend to drink more alcohol, which can lead to weight gain (
However, there are also other factors to consider.
For example, most college students are under a considerable amount of stress.
They may be experiencing pressure to succeed in classes, the financial burden of student loans, and the difficulty of balancing academic and social life. Stress is strongly associated with weight gain (
In addition to stress, some college students experience depression and anxiety, which are also linked to weight gain (
As you can see, many factors contribute to weight gain during college.
Thus, you cannot treat the problem with dietary changes alone. Rather, a holistic approach to diet, lifestyle, and mental well-being is much more effective for maintaining a healthy weight throughout college and beyond.
It’s also important to note that during your late teens and early 20s, body changes are normal. Your body may change shape and size as you continue to grow and develop.
Weight gain in college is common. A number of factors, including poor dietary choices, lack of physical activity, and stress, can contribute to it.
While the time you spend at college only comprises a small portion of your life, the way you treat your body during this time can affect your health as you age.
Studies show that people who are overweight in their teens and 20s are more likely to be overweight as they grow older. Plus, weight gain during early adulthood is associated with chronic health conditions later in life (
For example, a 2020 study that included 7,289 adults found that people who were overweight during early adulthood were significantly more likely to develop diabetes later in life (
Even though your choices during young adulthood may very well influence your health later in life, it’s critical to understand that you have the power to change your health for the better.
Taking better care of yourself does not mean that your diet and lifestyle choices have to be perfect. It simply means finding a healthy plan that works for you — and that you can maintain long term.
Gaining weight and developing overweight and obesity are all associated with developing chronic health conditions later in life.
Eating healthfully is just one part of the puzzle when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight in college.
Here are some key ways to lose weight safely and improve your overall health when you’re in college.
Eat nutritious foods more often and junk foods less often
Fad diets focus on deprivation and restriction. It’s best to avoid them.
They don’t work for long-term weight loss, and they can lead to significant mental health issues and the development of an unhealthy relationship with food (
Instead, develop an eating pattern that works best for your body by focusing on whole, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, protein sources (e.g., eggs and chicken), and healthy fats (e.g., nuts and olive oil).
Try to cut back on foods and beverages that are strongly linked to weight gain. These include sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and energy drinks, fast food, sweetened baked goods, and refined carbs like sugary breakfast cereals (
For example, if you’re used to eating a large bowl of sugary cereal and cup of orange juice in the dining hall each morning, try opting for a bowl of plain oats topped with nuts or seeds, fresh fruit, and a dollop of Greek yogurt instead.
Make sure to fuel your body regularly. Don’t skip meals to lose weight. Your best bet is to listen to your body and eat when you’re hungry.
If you’re not sure where to start, check to see whether your college offers nutritional counseling through student health services.
Find activities you love
Oftentimes, college students who are trying to lose excess body fat join gyms and participate in grueling workout classes. Although working out can promote weight loss, it’s not as important as being physically active on a daily basis.
If you enjoy going to the gym, attending workout classes and creating your own workouts may be a good choice for you.
However, if you’re not a gym person or don’t feel comfortable working out in front of other people, it’s possible to maintain a healthy weight and even lose weight without ever stepping foot in a fitness center.
Here are a few ways to stay active in college without going to the gym:
- Walk to your classes.
- Go for a jog outside.
- Hike with friends in a local park or forest.
- Go for a swim at the college pool.
- Try out a YouTube workout class in your dorm room.
Getting a step tracker can help you assess how active you are and help you slowly increase your activity levels. For example, if you’re currently averaging 3,000 steps per day, try adding 1,000 steps to that.
Once you’re consistently reaching that goal, add another 1,000 steps until you’re reaching at least 7,500 steps per day, which researchers consider “active” (
Studies show that reaching 10,000 or more steps per day can boost weight loss and improve physical and mental health (
Learning how to manage your stress levels is crucial to your overall well-being. Finding outlets that help relieve stress in your teens and early twenties can help set a healthy foundation for future stress management.
It may take some time, and you might find that what works for others does not necessarily help relieve stress for you. That is why it’s important to try out a number of different stress management practices to see what works.
- engaging in physical activity
- spending time outside hiking or walking
- listening to or making music
- breathing exercises
- spending time with loved ones
If you need help managing your stress levels, working with a mental health counselor can help. Counseling services are available at most colleges.
Get enough sleep
It’s perfectly healthy and normal to enjoy late-night hangouts with friends. However, on most nights of the week, make sure you get the National Sleep Foundation’s minimum for young adults: 7 hours of sleep. This will help you maintain a healthy weight (
Limiting screen time and creating a soothing, dark environment in your room can help you fall and stay asleep.
Treat any underlying medical issues
Several health conditions associated with weight gain may develop during your late teens and early 20s.
If you have experienced rapid, unexplained weight gain or are experiencing other symptoms that are affecting your health, it’s important to visit your healthcare provider to rule out any potential underlying medical conditions.
Additionally, eating disorders are common among college-aged people. These include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder (BED). These are serious medical conditions that need to be treated by a qualified healthcare provider.
If you think you may have an eating disorder, contact a healthcare provider or someone you trust to get the treatment you need.
Reduce your alcohol consumption
Studies show that heavy drinking during college can lead to weight gain.
For example, a study that included data on 7,941 young adults found that frequent heavy drinking was associated with a 41% higher risk of being overweight and a 36% higher risk of developing obesity 5 years later (
Plus, drinking too much alcohol is not good for your overall health and can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety (
Although alcohol can be part of your college experience, it’s important to create safe, healthy boundaries for yourself when it comes to alcohol consumption.
Create a social support system
Surrounding yourself with like-minded friends and family members who offer emotional support is critical for your health.
If you find that your current friend group does not make you feel like your best self or offer the encouragement you need to reach your health and wellness goals, it may be a healthy choice to form new relationships with people who truly want what’s best for you.
Creating a strong support group is especially important in college when you’re away from your loved ones at home.
If you’re having a hard time making connections, consider joining a club or activity group that interests you. Chances are you’ll form new healthy friendships quickly.
Making healthier dietary choices, being more physically active, managing stress, getting enough sleep, reducing your alcohol consumption, and creating a social support system are all healthy ways to encourage weight loss in college.