The 'Freshman 15' Is More Myth Than Reality -- the 'Freshman 3.5' More Accurate, Study Finds

College weight gain is overestimated, researchers say.

November 01, 2011, 2:25 PM

Nov. 2, 2011— -- Late-night pizza and doughnuts, buffalo wings, beer kegs, unlimited waffle servings at Sunday brunch -- these all seem to go with the college experience. But fear not, college freshmen. You're not going to gain 15 pounds of weight your first year of college, as everyone claimed. Turns out, the gain is not anything close to that.

According to a study slated for the December 2011 edition of Social Science Quarterly, college freshmen aren't actually at risk for gaining a huge amount of weight. Instead, first-year college students pack on only between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds, and surprisingly, that small gain has little to do with the lifestyle changes that college brings.

The typical college freshman puts on about a half pound more than someone of the same age who didn't go to college.

"Don't worry about suddenly going to college and becoming a blob," Jay Zagorsky, a co-author of the Ohio State University study, said. "The real takeaway is there are lots of things to worry about in college. But don't worry about the freshman 15 -- it doesn't exist."

This study, unlike previous studies, has been considered "revolutionary" in that it used information from a study of 7,418 young people from around the country who'd been part of the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. As of 2011, the participants had been reporting their height and weight every year for 14 years.

"Other studies did one university -- you know, 50 women or 20 guys, and they followed them for three months. We did a giant national study," Zagorsky, who's at Boston University, said. "We found these people before, during and after college. We actually have the comparison group."

Zagorsky and co-author Patricia K. Smith, who's at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, found that women gained an average of 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 -- while a quarter of freshman students reported they actually lost weight their first year.

The study also found that the average weight gain differed according to gender and was higher for men than for women: Men gained an average of 3.4 pounds and women gained an average of 2.4 pounds. Zagorsky believes this has to do with the fact that men tend to drink more alcoholic beverages in college than women do.

As to why the students gained weight, it could be for a multitude of reasons, said Zagorsky. Students are in a new environment without parental supervision. They often eat high-calorie cafeteria food. Most students need to watch their budgets, and ramen and pizza aren't the best options for the waistline, although they're certainly the cheapest. Increased stress and lack of sleep, and less physical activity also contribute to the pounds.

Zagorsky's biggest piece of advice in helping newly minted college students stay lean is lay off the booze. "If you are worried about weight gain -- what the research shows is don't be a heavy drinker. There are a lot of reasons not to be a heavy drinker, but heavy drinkers gain weight in college more than people who don't drink."

'Freshman 15' a Myth, Researchers Say

The data seem to conirm this. The researchers studied whether living in a dormitory, going to school full- or part-time, pursuing a two- or four-year degree played a part in the number of pounds packed on. "None of these factors made a significant difference on weight gain, except for heavy drinking," said Zagorsky. "Even then, those who were heavy drinkers gained less than a pound more than students who did not drink at that level."

Zagorsky emphasized the importance of adapting and sticking to a healthy lifestyle after one leaves school. The study found that in the four years following college, the typical student gained 1.5 pounds per year. Median weight gain then rose to 2.2 pounds in the fifth year. Anyone who gains an average of 1.5 pounds per year will eventually become obese, regardless of their initial weight.

"The big question is not, 'What can a freshman do?' -- at least not in my mind," Zagorsky said. "It's much more, 'How can you live a healthy lifestyle for the long-term and not feel bad about big Sunday brunch in the cafeteria?'"

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