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The basics
THE USA: Once you arrive

The Freshman 15

Are you putting on weight while studying overseas in America? Learn about the dreaded Freshman 15 and how you can prevent putting on weight while studying abroad...

Freshman 15

Almost considered an urban myth amongst college campuses across America, the scary reality for international students is that the ‘Freshmen 15’ is real. There are naturally going to be changes in one’s diet – simply put, different countries eat different things! What’s important for international students to know beforehand is that American food and how it is served is very different and if one isn’t careful, students can put on weight very easily.


What is the ‘Freshman 15’?

The 'Freshman 15' refers to the theoretical fifteen pounds (lbs) in weight which it is said that students gain in their first term at university in America. In the UK, it's called the ‘Freshers' 15’. This isn’t always true or exact, but more of a light-hearted joke about how university students tend to be quite lazy or eat terrible foods when they begin study away from home. Plus many international students grow very accustomed to the American diet where portions are bigger and include more sugar, fat and alcohol (though there are healthy alternatives).

Students need to step back and think about what they’re eating and how much. Eating together (and food in general) is a brilliant way to make friends and socialise; but doing this can cause a mirroring affect where students will copy what or when their friends are eating so as not to feel left out – no one wants to be the boring person who doesn’t want to participate after all.


Size matters

It’s not only restaurants or fast food “drive-thrus” that have unusually large food portions. Many American families are accustomed to portions that go up to the very edges of your plate (be careful about how you politely decline any food if you can’t finish what’s on your plate as this might cause offence).

American grocery stores and other convenience megastores such as Target and Costco are minefields of out-of-control food portions to encourage buying in bulk for families trying to save money. This can be turned into a positive if you’re saving money as it may be cheaper to buy in bulk (just as long as your portion sizes don’t increase too).


Fast food

You may already know of American fast food chains such as McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and Five Guys which have expanded abroad to your country – the USA is well known for its fast and greasy contribution to world cuisine. However in America you may find that portion sizes are significantly larger compared to those in your country, and may even include unhealthier options.


Frozen food and microwave meals

Beware of dishes, meals and ingredients which are pre-made and just require heating up in a microwave for a few minutes (from frozen sometimes). While these are convenient and sometimes economical, they often lack the proper nutritional content of a homemade version; instead they have high salt content or substitute additives so they last longer. The fact that many labelled ingredients aren’t even pronounceable or are just a string of numbers is also worrying. If you can read the ingredients and have a good idea what they are, you’ve found something relatively healthy.



Although the legal age to drink alcohol is 21 years in the States, some students below that age do manage to get their hands on alcohol by being around older students and at parties where it is available. Routine consumption of alcohol, especially of high-calorie beer and the mixers which go with it, will lead to students putting on the pounds without realising it. Combine this with late night snacking post-drinking when everything seems good to eat, and spending the next day recovering in bed from a hangover, and you can start to see how the weight creeps on.



4 Ways to battle the Freshman 15

Make meals at home

Cooking with your housemates and friends is a lot more interesting than simply going to the same few fast food places all the time. You can swap ideas for different dishes, and there is no limit to the kinds of cuisines you can try (whereas with eating out, you’re limited by what is near you). You’ll find that cooking with others provides hours of bonding time, and even those mishaps and accidents become things you’ll look back on and laugh at. Plus if you make things from scratch, you’ll be using fresh ingredients and actually cooking with an oven, rather than frying in lots of oil or using a microwave. Try shops like Whole Foods or local markets to find fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish.


Experiment in your first week...but find a routine after that

When you first arrive, it’s OK to go a little crazy and throw yourself into a whole new environment. In the US, this can mean eating at all the fast food chains you’ve only heard of from TV and films until now, like IHOP or White Castle. You probably won’t begin classes immediately so you won’t have a proper timetable just yet. Meeting new people and attending various socials and induction sessions will throw off your eating schedule, so don’t worry if you’re naughty in those first two weeks. However, the sooner you settle down and choose a diet that is more reflective of your normal diet at home, the better – it’s harder to start new regimes later on.


‘To go’

When eating out at restaurants (not fast food chains), you may find that portions are a lot larger than you can handle in one sitting. It’s a waste to leave what you’ve left, so ask to take it “to go” or have it “in a doggy bag”. The staff can pack it up and give it to you to take home. This can be dinner or lunch for tomorrow and will save you preparing something. With this option in mind, you won’t feel like you have to finish everything on your plate.

If someone has prepared you a meal, it is OK to leave some food uneaten if you can’t manage to finish it all. Some cultures take great offence to this, and you still may find some people in the US who take this the wrong way; however, just politely explain that you are full and simply cannot possibly eat anymore (compliment the food once more here too).


Keep up or increase your good habits

Even if you’re generally rather healthy, these positives may not be enough to contend with the sudden onslaught of meats and sugar which your body just isn’t used to. Increase your workout or exercise regime on those days/weeks when you know you’ve indulged more than you should. If you manage to keep your metabolism working at a good rate, this can help break down bad foods. Drinking plenty of water kick-starts your metabolism, which is at its slowest early in the morning and late at night; so avoid eating those less-than-healthy items at these times.


Study in the USA


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