I never heard of “Freshman 15” until my first year in graduate school studying public health… since I never had been a freshman in the United States. It seemed like a rather obvious fact- I knew very well the food environment on campus and how one can gain weight quite easily in it. Yet when I told my friends and family back in Ukraine, they were quite amused and surprised- how can you gain weight in college!?
When I moved to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, for my freshman year in 2003, I heard references to the “poor student” from all directions. Apparently, a new university student was poor, hungry, and rather slim. This idea is mostly based on the student image of the previous generation, however. The students in 2003 were not as pale and hungry as my parents remembered it- but they were definitely poor and slowly losing weight due to not having home-cooked meals made by moms as before. In 2003 students had more choices to eat out, but the prices prevented us from doing it often- you ended up cooking at home, snacking, or eating at the cafeteria. Indeed, many ended up losing weight, thus the freshman “-5” (about 2.5 kilograms; my term, arbitrarily chosen just like the “15”).
The following picture is of a cafeteria “full/wholesome lunch” at one of the biggest universities in Kiev taken several days ago. It costs $2.50 and includes: fresh broth-based warm soup, small cabbage salad, main course of a meat patty and mashed potatoes, piece of dark rye bread, and “kompot” (freshly boiled fruit drink) as well as a small pastry (dessert, I suppose). Approximately, a meal like this is roughly 700 calories. It would probably be the main meal for a student, who grabbed a quick breakfast and will attempt to make some food at home at the end of the day.
The main feature of this wholesome/full lunch is- while one might not necessarily consider the addition of pastry, potatoes and a piece of fried meat healthy- the portions are very conservative. The opportunities to overeat are indeed limited.
It would be unfair to compare this to an “American” lunch since a standard American lunch does not exist- the dining halls are using the buffet style so a student is free to choose as healthy or unhealthy as they want. Of course, based on the numerous freshmen focus groups last semester, the common sentiment is that choosing “healthy” is quite hard and annoying: the salads are tasteless, the fried and burgers are omnipresent and a dessert lurks around each food station corner. Plus there’s constant social snacking and eating out- taco bell at 2am, burger king for a cheap dinner… Gaining a freshmen 15 is no problem at all.
On the other side, a Ukrainian student increases his/her physical activity by simply going to and from the university (often a trip of about an hour each way), lack of pocket money for fast food, and rather appropriate (and I would argue “healthy”) home meals at the cafeteria.
It is simply the difference in environments– Ukrainian students do not possess a superior understanding of healthy eating necessarily or boast superhuman will-power capabilities.. they are constrained by resources and are exposed to the environment where overindulging opportunities are lower than, for example, at an American university.
P.S. I also believe more eating norms exist in Ukrainian culture that might prevent overeating and junk food consumption in general..but that’s hard to argue at this point.