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The “Freshman 15” - Fact or Fiction?

We first heard about it as the “Freshman 10” before it ballooned to the “Freshman 15,” just like our waistlines were supposed to. But does college weight gain really happen in such dramatic fashion, or is it just another media myth?

A new study published by Jay L. Zagorsky (Ohio State University) and Patricia K. Smith (University of Michigan – Dearborn) in December’s Social Science Quarterly debunks the “15” phenomenon and reveals that weight gain in college is not sudden but steady.

Study Results

The study is based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a large nationally representative random sample of young adults which includes both college and non-college students.

After evaluating data on 7,418 college students, Zagorsky and Smith found that freshmen gain an average of 2.5 to 3.5 pounds during their first year of college while non-college attendees gain about half a pound less.

Only about 10% of freshmen gain anywhere close to 15 pounds, and these students are often heavy drinkers, consuming six or more drinks at least four days per month. In fact, 25% of students in the study actually reported losing weight during their freshman year.

While this indicates that the “Freshman 15” is more fiction than fact, overall weight gain during college rounds out to about nine pounds for women and 13.4 pounds for men. After commencement, graduates gain about 1.5 pounds per year in the following four years after college, and the weight gain continues far beyond college.

6 Likely Reasons for College Weight Gain

Whether students gain a few pounds or many, a number of events during their initial college year contribute to weight gain.

  • Home-cooked meals vs. cafeteria food. Students living on campus often go from eating more nutritionally-balanced meals at home to “institutional food,” much of which is processed and high in refined carbohydrates, calories, and fat.

  • Lack of parental oversight. When parents are not around to prod students to “eat better,” between the all-you-can-eat dining halls and unlimited supply of snack foods, smarter choices are less likely to be made.

  • Limited college budget. The ramen noodle budget is real! Cheaper foods are often higher in fats and calories, and fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables get thrown to the wayside because they seem more expensive by comparison. Sadly, only 5% of college students reported consuming the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables per the National College Health Assessment.

  • The stress of college life and academics can cause weight gain because chronic stress is associated with chemical changes in the body which promote waistline expansion. Also, many students turn to high-calorie “comfort foods” and calorie-dense alcohol to cope with stress.

  • Lack of sleep. College students sleep less because they study (or party) more. This increases appetite and, in turn, carbohydrate consumption, resulting in weight gain. Only 10% of college students report they get enough sleep nightly to feel rested in the morning. Coffee and other energy drinks are go-to alertness aids, but they are often high in both sugar and calories.

  • Decrease in physical activity. With no required physical education classes and less opportunities to play team sports, physical activity decreases as studying increases. Students are more sedentary - only 19% of college students meet recommended amount of moderate-intensity physical activity according to the American College Health Association study in 2009.

The Bottom Line

While the “Freshman 15” is seemingly false, students (and parents) should not take this study as an excuse to be content with their lifestyle. If anything, it shows that in order to achieve maximum healthfulness and reduce the obesity epidemic, careful attention to diet and exercise needs to be exercised at every point of life, both before and after college.

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