From Our 2011 Archives
'Freshman 15' May Be Just a Myth
Study Debunks Notion That Many College Students Gain 15 Pounds in Their First Year at College
By Denise Mann
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
Nov. 3, 2011 -- Worried about gaining the "freshman 15"? Forget about it and focus on your course load instead. New research shows that the freshman 15 is just a myth.
In the study, female students gained on average about 3 pounds during their freshman year and males gained about 3.5 pounds. This is just 1/2 pound more than people their age who didn't go to college.
According to the study, 90% of freshmen don't gain the freshman 15. One-quarter or more of all freshmen actually lose weight during the first year of college.
"There are lots of things to worry about during their first year of college, including your roommate and your studies. But gaining weight is not something you should worry about," says study researcher Jay Zagorsky. He is a research scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research in Columbus. "We can no longer say that everyone who goes to college gets fat. Just a few people go to college and get fat."
Zagorsky and Patricia K. Smith of the University of Michigan, Dearborn analyzed data on the weight of more than 7,400 college students to see if there truly was a freshman 15 phenomenon.
The new findings will appear in the December issue of Social Science Quarterly.
Weight Gain in College
About 10% of freshmen gain 15 pounds during their first year of college. Students in this group also drink large amounts of alcohol, such as a six pack of beer every weekend, Zagorsky says.
Other factors, such as living in a dorm, going to a public or private college, or attending a two- or four-year college, had no effect on weight gain, the study shows.
Although there may be no such thing as the freshman 15, female students do gain an average of about 9 pounds during their college years, while males gain 13.4 pounds, the researchers report.
This weight gain continues even after they finish college. Graduates gain about 1 and 1/2 pounds per year during the first four years after college.
So where did the myth of the freshman 15 come from anyway? Zagorsky was able to trace back its origins to a 1989 article in Seventeen magazine.
And in theory, it made some sense. College may be the first time that some teens are fending for themselves at mealtime. If you factor in late-night pizza while studying, alcohol, and less physical activity, weight gain could occur.
"Temptation is there, but they are not packing on the pounds," he says.
"The study provides one more piece of support that weight gain in college tends, on average, to be no higher than that of young adults not attending college," Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, says in an email. She is the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "It is a good reminder that several factors impact weight, including activity, and when college students decrease their activity from high school this will be a contributor to weight gain."
Making Good Food Choices
Lawrence Friedman, MD, says that college students do gain weight, but once again, no more than same-aged people who don't go to college. He is the director of adolescent medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"Teens are not fully grown at age 17 or 18," he says. "We would expect growth and weight gain during these years that have nothing to do with college."
Still, the new study does not mean freshmen or other college students can become complacent, Friedman tells WebMD.
"Be conscientious about your choices," he says. "Remember that alcohol is high in calories and often consumed in addition to a meal, not in place of one." Alcohol also can take away your inhibitions and nudge you to reach for the phone to order that late-night pizza or make other unhealthy choices.
SOURCES: Zagorsky, J.L. Social Science Quarterly, 2011.Lawrence Friedman, MD, director, adolescent medicine, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, director of university nutrition, Washington University in St. Louis.Jay Zagorsky, research scientist, Center for Human Resource Research, Ohio State University, Columbus.