‘Freshman 15’ myth debunked, average student gains less


It has been blamed on soft serve ice cream, stuffed crust pizza and weekend alcohol binges. First introduced in Seventeen Magazine in 1989, the “freshman 15” has almost become synonymous with thoughts of the first year of college. But how much of the infamous weight gain is fact and how much is myth?

According to a study published in the December 2011 edition of the Social Science Quarterly titled “The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or Media Myth,” many young adults do experience weight gain their freshman year of college, but it is rarely as many as 15 pounds.

Instead, the average weight gain was between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 pounds.

The study used a nationally representative random sample from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) from 1997, which includes approximately 9,000 people born between 1980 and 1984. Participants had to have lived in the United States in 1997 to be eligible for the study.

The study, conducted by Patricia Smith and Jay Zagorsky of Ohio State University, looked at factors such as gender, residence, type of college attended, number of hours taken, number of years in degree program and level of alcohol consumption.  

After observations were made, Smith concluded that students in a two-year program gained more weight that those in the four-year program. Freshman women living off campus gained an average of one pound more than those living in a dorm. Freshman men in the dorms, however, gained an average of 1.1 pounds more compared to those off-campus.

In addition, males who drank heavily gained an average of 4.1 pounds, while those who considered themselves not heavy drinkers only gained 3.2 pounds.

According to the K-State Department of Housing and Dining Services website, more than 5,000 students live in the K-State residence halls, many of whom eat at Van Zile, Derby, or Kramer dining centers. Each dining center provides multiple options at each meal for students to choose from in an all-you-can-eat setting.

“We have so many options with six serving lines available, but it’s up to the students to make the decisions of what they eat,” said Valerie Donelan, dietitian specialist for Housing and Dining Services. “We do have fresh fruit and vegetables available every day that they can choose.”

Lacey Lokken, freshman in psychology, has taken advantage of many of the healthier options offered at the K-State dining centers.

“I’ve gotten a lot better about eating since coming to college,” Lokken said. “I usually get a salad, and I eat more fruits and vegetables now.”

Since attending K-State, Lokken thinks she might have even lost weight eating at the dining centers, something she credits to the healthy options at hand.

“I eat healthier because it’s available,” Lokken said. “There was a lot of junk food available at my house, and fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t always available. Sometimes I just didn’t feel like making anything at home, but here, it’s already made.”

Losing weight after starting college is not rare, Smith said. According to the study, a quarter of freshmen students reporting losing weight during their first year.

While many students reported losing weight, or gaining only 2 to 3 pounds, not all participants fell within that range. One percent of responders reported gaining slightly more than 36 pounds their freshman year, and 10 percent reported gaining almost 13 pounds their first year.

Weight gain, no matter if it is 3 pounds or 36 pounds, can have many causes in college, said Julie Gibbs, director of Health Promotion and Nutrition Counseling at Lafene Health Center.

“A lot of weight gain is due to different foods,” Gibbs said. “They are going from mom and dad’s house and high school to eating at college. There is usually a huge difference in what they eat, whether that’s fast food, or just incomplete meals.”

What’s being eaten is a large part of weight control, but not the entire story, Gibbs said.

“When individuals gain or lose weight, it is usually about 70 percent diet. But there’s exercise, too,” Gibbs said. “A lot of students go from organized sports in high school to not really doing a lot in college.”

Weight management isn’t a Monday through Friday issue, either, Gibb said.

“We hate to admit it, but students’ social lives are a factor. If you go out on the weekends, a couple of drinks can add up to another meal,” Gibbs said.

Diet and exercise are obvious weight management techniques, but stress and sleep are also important to maintaining a healthy weight, Gibbs said.

“Stress is another big part to think about. With that is the lack of sleep,” Gibbs said. “A lack of sleep equals eating more and not being as active.”

In order to combat weight gain, Gibbs suggests students set a routine that focuses on a healthy diet and exercise.

“I highly suggest getting on a set exercise routine for weight management, increased productivity, and good energy levels. It helps you sleep better, eat better and combat stress,” Gibbs said.

Weight isn’t just about a number of a scale, Gibbs said.

“For a lot of people, gaining weight gives you a low self-esteem. People are less likely to do as well in general with a low self-esteem. You don’t have that built up confidence,” Gibbs said. “In addition, if you are overweight, you’ll have less energy and be less productive.”

While researchers have found that the infamous “freshman 15” may be less sinister than previously thought, the ideas behind it, healthy eating and portion control, are still important factors for people of all ages, Donelan said.

“The most important thing for anyone to remember is healthy portions and keeping in mind what is healthier and less healthy,” Donelan said. “Instead of making the decision to get fried food every meal, or all six options, stop at just one. It’s all about portion control.”