First year: feast or famine?

Why the Frosh 15 may not be what you think it is

The all-you-can-eat style of cafeterias can be the downfall of first-year students trying to stay healthy.
The all-you-can-eat style of cafeterias can be the downfall of first-year students trying to stay healthy.
Balancing exercise with food intake is key to staving off the Frosh 15.
Balancing exercise with food intake is key to staving off the Frosh 15.
Journal File Photo

Think back to the Saturday evening of your Frosh Week. You’re standing in your double room, wearing a smelly yellow t-shirt and a grimy pair of coveralls, watching your new roommate’s belongings begin to ebb closer to your floor space. You haven’t slept for more than five hours all week or showered in the past 48, and your 400-person bio lecture—for which you don’t have a textbook yet—is at 8:30 Monday morning. And it’s dinnertime. What are you going to eat?

For some frosh, there’s an easy answer: whatever they want. But others agonize over the endless choices in the cafeteria, and the limitless parade of people to meet and books to read. Soon the expectations to fulfill become too much to handle. It has long been legend that students react to this stress by gaining weight: the dreaded “Frosh 15.” For one ArtSci ’05, who asked not to be named, adjusting to first year had the opposite effect.

“I was so nervous [when I first arrived at university],” she recalled.

“Going to the caf is such a social thing—finding someone to eat with and not being left out. Girls are more concerned about what they eat in front of a co-ed group. That’s a huge thing, the whole self-confidence thing.”

She said a vast array of new experiences and responsibilities compounded the pressure she felt.

“Life is very independent at university,” she said. “You have the choice whether or not to go to class or do your readings. And there’s a change in your marks: to get a 90 in certain subjects is near impossible.

“Being away from home for the first time and having this wonderful new experience is so overwhelming that people find things to control. You can control your eating, whereas you have no control over what time your roommate comes in or how loud it is in your building.”

She began restricting her food intake and going to the gym almost every day. She said she became self-conscious of both her weight and her eating patterns and said she felt embarrassed to eat in front of others.

At the same time, her energy level plummeted and was replaced by feelings of stress and depression.

She estimated she lost ten to 15 pounds from her already-lean frame during her first semester, and only realized the extent of her weight loss when friends from home commented on her thinness during Christmas break.

“You have to hit bottom before you can bounce back up,” she said.

“It just got to the point where I said, ‘No, this isn’t right, I don’t want to do this to myself.’ Admitting that it was a problem was the hardest part.” She sought help from her family, whom she credits with supporting her throughout her recovery from anorexia.

Although she never used the counselling services available at Queen’s, she says knowing they were available was support in itself.

While she has only known other female students who have struggled with eating disorders, she acknowledges male students can also be affected. She said she saw extremes in first year students’ attitudes towards food.

“There are people who get the Frosh 15,” she said. “There are [also] girls who see other girls their age who are a certain body type, and they try to pursue that [which can lead to anorexia or bulimia].” Experiences such as hers do not surprise Queen’s Health Educator Diane Nolting. Nolting pointed out that weight fluctuations in first-year students are due to a “whole constellation” of factors, including social eating habits, changing activity patterns and alcohol consumption, and that students’ reactions to those factors are as varied as the individuals themselves.

As an educator, Nolting said she focuses mainly on making students aware of potential nutritional concerns and encouraging them to make healthy choices. In dining halls like Leonard or Ban Righ, that can be challenging, she said.

“We know that when you go into a cafeteria with tons of choices, it can be a bit overwhelming,” she said, adding that the range of choices can prompt students to eat more than they intended, or throw their five-fruits-a-day vow out the window.

“But the opportunities to eat well are certainly there. When you have a lot of choices, you have the opportunity for creativity.”

Many first-year students lunching in Ban Righ this week said they’ve heard of the Frosh 15. Megan McGroarty, ArtSci ’08, said she and her floormates hope to avoid it.

“We’re going to all try to go to the gym together and do a class like kickboxing,” she said.

She and several members of her Gael group already have small fridges stocked with snacks and have made commitments with friends to stay active and aware of their eating patterns.

Their Gaels, with a year of caf experience under their belts, say that weight fluctuations do happen in first year, but most students are aware of them and able to manage them independently.

Ryan Keech, ArtSci ’07, wasn’t convinced that a 15-pound weight gain is inevitable.

“I think the Frosh 15 is a big scam,” he said. “It’s easy to work out in res, and it’s just as easy to live healthy here as it is at home. But food is more accessible and your parents aren’t putting portions on your plate, so you have to take charge of your diet. I gained five to ten pounds, but definitely not 15.”

Keech said he lost the weight easily in the summer, and now that he’s accustomed to living on his own, he expects to maintain a healthy weight in his second year.

Jenny McVean, ArtSci ’07, said she thinks healthy eating habits will be easier to maintain in upper years, as the cafeteria atmosphere becomes less of a factor.

“You’d sit around at the caf because it’s a social experience and grab some more ice cream or Jell-O,” she said. “I don’t think it was stress, just the crappy lifestyle.” Emily Lauzon, ConEd ’07, said she didn’t notice much of a difference in her weight during first year, but said the adjustment to living independently in first year makes weight fluctuations a distinct possibility.

“I lived on West Campus, so I did lots and lots and lots of walking,” she said. “But the food is there, so I could see how it could happen.

“I think drinking has a lot to do with [weight gain]. And a lot of people get out of their routine from high school where they played sports and worked out. It’s a new setting—it could really go either way.” Bruce Griffiths, director of residence and hospitality services, told the Journal Queen’s has gradually altered its meal plans to provide students in residence with as many options as possible.

At one time, all residents had to buy an 18-meal-per-week plan. The system was changed several years ago to a 15-per-week plan with 200 Flex Dollars aimed at giving students more freedom to snack when they were hungry.

This year, residents have access to a smorgasbord of meal options ranging from a plan giving students unlimited meals but no Flex Dollars, to an annual plan giving them 320 meals and 200 Flex Dollars to use anytime during the year. There are also four weekly plans with a variety of meal to Flex Dollar ratios.

Griffiths said Queen’s doesn’t have enough retail space on campus to move to the debit or pay-as-you-eat system used by many other universities, which allows students to eat whenever they are hungry and lowers the food costs for those with smaller appetites.

“All meal plans have an up and a downside,” Griffiths noted. “For example, a debit plan with the high ‘grazing-factor’ does not guarantee that students will make healthy choices. They may ‘graze’ on donuts, pizza, burgers, and so on.

“I think the dining hall approach with the Flex component balances options for the student. Within the dining halls, there are lots of healthy choices, and once students are inside they can have whatever they want without worrying that if they want a side salad they won’t have enough debit points for something else. The Flex Dollars allow for in-between-meal ‘grazing’ and snacks, and are included for that very reason.”

Although Nolting has never worked at a university with a debit-style meal plan, she said counselling colleagues at other schools have told her that having students pay as they go does not necessarily encourage them to eat better.

“What happens is that students merrily go along and then suddenly realize they’ve run out of money, which can be more problematic,” she said.

A greater concern with the current plans, she said, is that most students aren’t making the most of them. Most students don’t eat breakfast, she says, which hampers their ability to concentrate and makes them prone to binge eating later in the day.

Food Services Director Phil Sparks agrees, saying Leonard cafeteria serves fewer than 1,000 breakfasts but close to 2,000 lunches and 2,000 dinners each day.

He said students living off-campus with partial meal plans account for some of the increase at lunch and dinner, but said he still thinks the number of meals served reflects students’ eating habits.

“If people are going to skip a meal, they skip breakfast and use Flex Dollars later on,” he said.

It’s not always clear how much first-year food anxiety is paranoia and how much is legitimate concern.

There is some evidence that the Frosh 15 is real. A 2003 study by David A. Levitsky, a professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University, found students gain an average of 4.2 pounds during their first 12 weeks of university. If the weight gain were to continue at the same rate over the year, it would total close to 15 pounds.

However, Levitsky’s study did not track weight gain over a full year or determine whether it persisted into upper years.

Levitsky and his team weighed 60 first-year Cornell students—85 per cent of whom were female—at the beginning and end of their fall term. He also had them fill out a questionnaire describing their eating, exercise and other lifestyle habits.

The team found that the students gained about 5.5 ounces each week—which is 11 times more than the expected weekly weight gain for 17 and 18-year-olds.

That means each student ate roughly 175 more calories (the equivalent of two apples or one plain bagel) than they expended each day.

Levitsky suggested that 20 per cent of the students’ weight gain could be attributed to their eating habits in all-you-can-eat cafeterias.

Humans, he said, tend to eat what’s put in front of them, so providing unlimited food may induce students to take and eat large portions.

He also said people don’t usually eat a smaller meal if they’ve snacked earlier in the day, so access to junk food between meals in dorm rooms and vending machines is also likely to be a factor.

Nolting warns students not to panic about the Frosh 15.

“Where that magic number comes from is anyone’s guess,” she said. “I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, ‘Your marks will go down 15 per cent and you’ll gain 15 pounds.’ First year, particularly, is stressful enough—people don’t need to hear that.”

Tips for avoiding the Frosh 15

Here are a few ways to help maintain a healthy weight in university, from Queen's Health Educator Diane Nolting:

· Push the beer to one side and store healthy snack foods, such as fruit, yogurt and whole-grain breads, in residence fridges.

· Plan your caf meal around Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating, and challenge friends and floormates to do the same. Be adventurous and try a variety of foods.

· Recognize the effects of alcohol consumption on weight gain. A regular bottle of beer contains 150 calories and only trace amounts of nutrients.

· Be aware of your energy levels and the general state of your health. Try to manage your stress levels and move your body regularly.

Input ...

A sampling of calorie content for various cafeteria foods on campus (and you thought squash was good for you!):

9 oz of vegetable lasagna - 309 calories
4 oz of baked squash with cheese - 252 calories
6 oz of southern pot roast - 200 calories
3 oz of apple cobbler - 152 calories
2.5 oz of tropical fruit salad - 64 calories
1 oz of potato salad - 58 calories
4 oz of steamed zucchini - 17 calories
1 oz of green salad with tomatoes - 5 calories

Source: Sodexho nutritional listings

... and Output

Amount of energy burned per hour of activity for a 150-pound individual:

Swimming laps vigorously - 720 calories
Elliptical training - 648 calories
Playing basketball - 576 calories
High impact aerobics - 504 calories
Moving and carrying boxes - 504 calories
Shovelling snow - 432 calories
Dancing - 396 calories
Sitting and reading - 81calories
Sleeping - 45 calories


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