Starting college can be incredibly stressful. For many 18-year-olds, it is the first time they have lived away from home. Add in course-work challenges, trying to live on a budget, balancing academic time with social time, personal relationships, and work, and you have a stress-induced perfect storm.
But in a weight conscious society, many college-bound students worry most about the dreaded "Freshman 15", the weight gained during a student's first year of college.
The phenomenon isn't isolated to the United States. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand it goes by names such as "First Year Fatties," "Fresher spread," and "Fresher five (kilograms). "
A 2008 study in the journal Health Psychology found first-time college freshmen were at risk of packing on extra, unwanted pounds through a new sense of freedom, a boost in alcohol consumption, and a wholesale change in eating habits from healthy foods to those high in sugar and fat.
Some nutritional experts say campus dining rooms also encourage an all-you-can-eat mentality where students can binge their way to a new pant size.
But a new national study from Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research says contrary to popular belief, most college students don’t gain anywhere near 15 pounds during their freshman year.
"The ‘freshman 15’ is a media myth,” study co-author Jay Zagorsky said in a written statement. “Most students don’t gain large amounts of weight. And it is not college that leads to weight gain - it's becoming a young adult.”
On average, women gained 2.4 pounds during their freshman year, while men gained an average of 3.4 pounds. No more than 10 percent of college freshman gained 15 pounds or more — and a quarter of freshman reported actually losing weight during their first year, according to the study.
However, the study does show that college students do gain weight steadily over their college years. The typical woman gains between seven and nine pounds, while men gain between 12 and 13 pounds.
But it’s not the college experience, alcohol or the all-you-can-eat cafeterias that adds the extra weight, Zagorsky says. The typical freshman only gains about a half-pound more than a same-age person who didn’t go to college.
The researchers also examined what happened to college students’ weight after they graduated. They found that in the first four years after college, the typical respondent gained another 1.5 pounds per year.
“Not only is there not a ‘freshman 15,’ there doesn’t appear to be even a ‘college 15’ for most students, Zagorsky said. “College students don’t face an elevated risk of obesity because they gain a large amount of weight during their freshman year. Instead, they have moderate but steady weight gain throughout early adulthood. Anyone who gains 1.5 pounds every year will become obese over time, no matter their initial weight.”
During the past 20 years, the United States has had a dramatic increase in obesity and rates remain high, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Obesity has been linked to serious illnesses such as type II diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. In 2010 in every U.S. state, at least 1 in 5 residents were obese.
Given the results of the study, but also the reality of the population at large, most students don’t need to worry about large weight gains their freshman year, Zagorsky said, but they still should focus on living a healthy lifestyle.
“Students should begin developing the habit of eating healthy food choices and exercising regularly. Those habits will help them throughout their lives,” he said.
Zagorsky conducted the new study with Patricia Smith at University of Michigan-Dearborn using data from 7,418 young people from around the country who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. This study appears in the December 2011 issue of the journal Society Science Quarterly.
Lynette Summerill, an award-winning writer and scuba enthusiast lives in San Diego, CA with her husband and two canine kids. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.
Ohio State Research Communications. The Freshman 15 is a Myth national study reveals. Jeff Grabmeier, 31 Oct. 2011. http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/freshman15.htm
Health Psychology. The “Freshman Fifteen” (the “Freshman Five” Actually): Predictors and Possible Explanations. Jill M. Holm-Denoma, Thomas E. Joiner Jr. Kathleen D. Vohs, Todd F. Heatherton. 2008, Vol. 27, No. 1(Suppl.), S3–S9 PDF available online at: http://pjackson.asp.radford.edu (accessed 31 Oct. 2011)
U.S. Obesity Trends 1985-2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed online 31 Oct. 2011 at: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html
Reviewed November 1, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith