A new study dispels the myth of the "Freshman 15,” the widely accepted notion that students generally gain fifteen pounds during their first year of college, finding instead that the average weight gain is only between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds. Additionally, the researchers concluded that the change has little to do with being at college, and much more to do with the inherent lifestyle and metabolism changes associated with becoming a young adult.
The study, due to be published in the December issue of Social Science Quarterly, appeared online last month. Using data from a survey conducted only within the United States, it reveals that the typical freshman only gains about a half pound more than the same-age person who does not go to college. In the past, concern about access to all-you-can-eat cafeterias and abundant fast food restaurants like Taco Bell and McDonalds—with no parental oversight—led many to believe that weight gain was imminent. But that doesn't seem to hold true for most students.
"The 'Freshman 15' is a media myth," says Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study from Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research. "Most students don't gain large amounts of weight. And it is not college that leads to weight gain—it is becoming a young adult."
Zagorsky and co-author Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan analyzed nationwide data from 7,418 young people who took part in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. For the NLSY97, the data collectors interviewed young people aged 13 to 17 in 1997, and then again every year since—asking a range of questions including those about weight and college status. After they analyzed the data, the authors found that on average, female students gained 2.4 pounds in their freshman year, while male students gained an average of 3.4 pounds. (Nice to know that, huh?).
Fewer than 10% of students gained 15 or more pounds in their first year, and 25% actually reported losing weight. Zagorsky and Smith say these findings suggest that the media's focus on the "Freshman 15" may be having serious implications. Repeated use of the term "Freshman 15," even as a catchy figure of speech may "contribute to the perception of being overweight, especially among young women," says the lead author.
"Weight gain should not be a primary concern for students going off to college," he urges, pointing to the fact that one in four actually reported losing weight in the study. However, the authors suggest that students should begin developing the habit of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly—two habits with lifetime benefits.
Zagorsky and Smith also looked at what else might be linked to college weight gain, including whether students lived in dorms, were enrolled full or part-time, were completing a two or four-year degree, attended a public vs. private institution or drank heavily (“heavily” here consisting of six of more alcoholic drinks on at least four days a month). They found none of these factors to be significantly tied to weight gain except for drinking heavily—and even then when compared to those who were not heavy drinkers, the heavy drinkers gained less than a pound in their first year of college.
Zagorsky also pointed out that dorm life was not linked to weight gain, thereby dispelling a notion that living in dorms leads to weight gain among first year students. But, looking at the year-to-year trend, the results do show a steady gain in weight during college years. Over the duration, the average female student puts on between 7 and 9 pounds, while the average male student puts on between 12 and 13 pounds. But even this does not approach the fifteen pounds of the "Freshman 15" myth. Interestingly, Zagorsky and Smith also found that students who worked during their college years put on an extra 0.2 pounds for each month they worked, and that when they left college, students continued to gain weight (to the tune of 1.5 pounds per year) in the first four post-college years.
The authors make an important conclusion: anti-obesity efforts directed specifically at college freshmen will likely have little impact on the prevalence of obesity among young adults, as the statistics indicate that a higher risk of obesity is not correlated with freshman year weight gain. Instead, the study shows that people gain weight steadily throughout early adulthood, emphasizing the fact that anyone who gains 1.5 pounds every year will become obese over time—no matter their initial weight.