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posted: 9/9/2013 5:16 AM

Science weighs in on the 'Freshman 15'

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  • Recent studies show that college students usually gain weight their first year, but it's less than the so-called "Freshman 15."

      Recent studies show that college students usually gain weight their first year, but it's less than the so-called "Freshman 15."

 
By Sophia Breene
Special To The Washington Post

For many new college students, adapting to university life is especially challenging when faced with the threat of the so-called "Freshman 15," a term for the weight college freshmen supposedly gain during their first year away from home.

But is the Freshman 15 real or just a cultural myth?

In fact, the Freshman 15 isn't a scientific phrase. Seventeen Magazine introduced the term on its August 1989 cover. Since then, the expression has gained credence in pop culture.

But recent studies suggest that while college students (both male and female) do gain weight during their first year at school, it's more like 5 pounds than 15.

A recent Ohio State University study that included data from 7,418 young people over the course of their college years found that women and men, on average, gained around three pounds during freshman year. Less than 10 percent of the freshmen gained 15 pounds (or more), and a quarter of the students actually lost weight in their first year.

However, the study also found that on average, students slowly gained weight while at college. For women, the difference between the first day of school and graduation was between 7 and 9 pounds; for men, it was between 12 and 13 pounds.

Overall, the only consistent "cause and effect" relationship was between boozing and weight: Students who drank "heavily" (six or more drinks at least four days each month) were about a pound heftier than their teetotaling friends.

Other studies reinforce the message that while young people tend to gain weight during their college years, it doesn't happen overnight (or even over one year). In fact, it might not have anything to do with attending college. The Ohio State University study found that students were (on average) just a half-pound heavier than their noncollegiate peers. According to the researchers, this may be because many 17- or 18-year-olds are simply not at their full adult size (either in height or weight) before heading off to college. So while some weight gain might be the result of late-night nachos and keg stands, a significant part of the Freshman 15 can be attributed to plain old-fashioned growth.

There's lots of advice out there about how to shed those 15 pounds. Common tips include eating well-balanced meals in the cafeteria, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, and keeping alcohol consumption (and the late-night munchies that often go along with it) under control. But are these warnings and tips actually helpful?

The hype and anxiety related to weight and eating habits at college can sometimes have a negative effect, making otherwise healthy young adults obsess over food and exercise. And the fear of weight gain and body dissatisfaction are potential triggers for eating disorders, especially among women.

While it's important to teach young people how to take care of themselves in a healthy way, scary magazine articles that tout the inevitability of first-year weight gain don't help anyone.

Although the Freshman 15 is a myth (for most), college students are still prone to gain a few pounds en route to their diplomas. Still, those four years can be an ideal time for students to explore which eating and exercise habits make them feel healthiest and happiest. Colleges can help by teaching students how to develop balanced habits for life.

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