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Freshman 15: College Weight Gain Is Real

1 in 4 College Freshmen Gain About 10 Pounds in First Semester

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

July 28, 2009 -- Students headed off to college this fall beware: The infamous freshman 15 is for real.

A new study shows that nearly one in four freshmen gain at least 5% of their body weight, an average of about 10 pounds, during their first semester.

"Almost one quarter of students gained a significant amount of weight during their first semester of college," researchers Heidi J. Wengreen and Cara Moncur of the department of nutrition and food sciences at Utah State University in Logan write in Nutrition Journal.

"This study provides further evidence that the transition to college life is a critical period of risk for weight gain, and college freshmen are an important target population for obesity prevention strategies."

College Weight Gain Common

Although other studies have documented the phenomenon of the freshman 15 weight gain, researchers say few have examined the changes in behaviors that occur as students transition from high school to college that may contribute to unhealthy weight gain.

The study followed 159 students enrolled at a mid-sized university in the fall of 2005. Each student's weight was measured at the beginning and end of the fall semester, and the participants also filled out a survey about their diet, physical activity, and other health-related habits during the last six months of high school and during the first semester at college.

Researchers found the average amount of weight gained during the study was modest, at about 3.3 pounds. But 23% of college freshmen gained at least 5% of their body weight and none lost that amount.

There was no significant difference in the amount of weight gained by women and men in the study.

Reasons Behind College Weight Gain

Those who gained at least 5% of their body weight reported less physical activity during their first semester at college than in high school and were more likely to eat breakfast and slept more than those who didn't gain as much.

Previous studies have shown teens and adults who skip breakfast are more likely to gain weight, and researchers say they were surprised to find that eating breakfast regularly was linked to greater weight gain in the first three months of college.

They say it may reflect more frequent meals at all-you-can-eat dining facilities at college, and more research is needed to clarify this finding.

"In general, our findings are consistent with the findings of others who report the transition from high school to college promotes changes in behavior and environment that may support weight gain," they conclude.

SOURCES: Gordon-Larsen, P. Nelson, M. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, January 2009; vol 89: 19-26; 15-16. News release, American Society for Nutrition.

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