Is the “Freshman 15” a Myth?

A new study found that the idea of “freshman 15” weight gain is a myth. Rather, the study found that women typically gain 2.4 pounds in their first year of college and men gain 3.4 pounds, on average. Many college-bound students are concerned about the “Freshman 15,” the highly publicized notion that students tend to pack on the pounds their first year in college. Some of the theories that have been proposed for this weight gain include consumption of higher calorie cafeteria food, loss of parental guidance in food decisions, strained budgets leading to consumption of cheaper calorie-dense snacks and packaged foods, alcohol consumption, as well as increased stress and inadequate sleep. Armed with these theories, the research team at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research set out to determine if the “Freshman 15” is a real phenomenon. The study used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. In the survey, 7000 teens were first interviewed between the ages of 13 and 17 in 1997 and have been interviewed each subsequent year.

One of the key findings from the Survey was that only about 10 percent of all college freshmen actually gained 15 pounds, and one out of four freshmen reported losing weight. Further, most students didn’t even gain 15 pounds total over their 4 years of college.  The study authors said that the findings indicated that college students packed on the pounds gradually over the course of their studies, with women putting on an average of seven to nine pounds, and men on average 12 to 13 pounds. Of all the factors looked at–living in a dorm, full or part-time student, two-year or four-year degree and alcohol consumption–the only factor that made a significant impact on weight gain was heavy drinking, though on average they gained less than a pound more per year more than non-heavy drinkers.

The study authors explained that while we do gain weight as we get older, it is not college that leads to weight gain – it is becoming a young adult. They found that during what would have been freshman year for non-college students, the women gained about two pounds and men put on about three pounds. Therefore, college freshmen are only gaining about a 1/2 pound more than similar people not attending college.

We spoke to Dr. Gerardo Cárcamo of South Texas Surgeons about the study. He said, “It’s refreshing to see that one aspect of our obesity epidemic is perhaps not as bad as some might think, with regards to the myth of the ‘Freshman 15’. This large study of 7000 college students found that only ten percent of college students gained 15 pounds, and the average freshman weight gain was only 2 or 3 pounds.” Even though 2 or 3 pounds sounds like a small amount of weight gain, Dr. Cárcamo warns that it can mark the beginning of a dangerous trend: “If an adult continued on that trajectory of a 2 or 3 pound weight gain throughout adulthood they would end up with an obesity problem by middle age.”

A smaller study published a few years ago had similar findings, with freshman gaining an average of 4.8 pounds in their first year of college. You can read more about that study here.

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