Freshman 15 A Myth: Study
November 2, 2011

Freshman 15 A Myth: Study

The belief that college freshmen gain an average of 15 pounds during their first year of school is untrue, according to a new study by researchers at the Ohio State University.

Rather, the average student gains between 2.4 and 3.4 pounds during their first year of college, the researchers reported on Tuesday.

“The ℠freshman 15´ is a media myth,” said Jay Zagorsky, research scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research and co-author of the study.

"Not only is there not a 'Freshman 15,' there doesn't appear to be even a 'college 15' for most students," Zagorsky added.

Indeed, the typical freshman gained only about half a pound more than a person of the same age who did not attend college, the study revealed. 

“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.”

Media reporting of the freshman 15 myth may have serious implications, Zagorsky said.

“Repeated use of the phrase ℠the freshman 15,´ even if it is being used just as a catchy, alliterative figure of speech, may contribute to the perception of being overweight, especially among young women,” he said.

“Weight gain should not be a primary concern for students going off to college.”

The study used data from 7,418 young people from around the country that participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which interviewed people between the ages of 13 and 17 every year beginning in 1997. 

Among many other questions, respondents were asked their weight and college status each year.  Other studies have shown that college students tend to underestimate their weight by half a pound to 3 pounds.  However, if people are consistent in underestimating their weight from year to year, it would not impact these results, Zagorsky explained.

The results revealed that women gained an average of 2.4 pounds during their freshman year, while men gained an average of 3.4 pounds.  Importantly, no more than 10 percent of college freshman gained 15 pounds or more -- and a quarter of freshman actually reported losing weight during their first year.

The researchers examined a variety of factors that may be associated with freshman weight gain, including whether students lived in a dormitory, attended school full or part time, pursued a two-year or four-year degree, went to a private or public institution, or were heavy drinkers of alcohol — defined as consuming six or more drinks on at least four days per month.

But none of these factors made a significant difference on weight gain, except for heavy drinking.  And even then, students who were heavy drinkers gained less than a pound more than those who did not drink at that level.

Zagorsky said it was particularly significant that dorm living did not add to weight gain, since one hypothesis has been that the dorm environment encourages weight gain during the freshman year.

“There has been concern that access to all-you-can-eat cafeterias and abundant fast food choices, with no parental oversight, may lead to weight gain, but that doesn´t seem to hold true for most students,” he said.

The study´s results do show, however, that college students do gain weight steadily over their college years, with the typical woman gaining between seven and nine pounds and the typical man gaining between 12 and 13 pounds during their time in college.

Over the course of the entire college career, students who both worked and attended college gained an extra one-fifth of a pound for each month they worked, the study revealed.

The researchers also examined what happened to college students´ weight after they graduated, and found that in the first four years after college, the typical respondent gained an additional 1.5 pounds per year.

“College students don´t face an elevated risk of obesity because they gain a large amount of weight during their freshman year,” Zagorsky said.

“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.”

Although most students don´t need to worry about large weight gains their freshman year, Zagorsky said they still should focus on a healthy lifestyle.

“Students should begin developing the habit of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly.  Those habits will help them throughout their lives.

The study will appear in the December 2011 issue of the journal Social Science Quarterly.


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