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Why the "Freshman 15" Is a Lie

For many students heading off to college this fall, the myth of freshman weight gain can be downright terrifying. Is the “Freshman 15” a legit cause for concern, or just an urban myth?
Why the "Freshman 15" Is a Lie
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For many new university students, heading off to college means figuring out how to balance studies, work, a social life, and living alone all at the same time. Adapting to college life is even more 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.

Is the Freshman 15 real, or just a cultural myth? Read on to learn how this term became commonplace and what students can do to maintain a healthy lifestyle freshman year and beyond.

The Answer/Debate

Let’s begin with a bit of a bombshell: The Freshman 15 isn’t a legitimate, scientific phrase. Seventeen Magazine introduced the term on its August 1989 cover with the all-caps subhead “FIGHTING THE FRESHMAN 15.” Since then, the expression has gained popularity and credence throughout pop culture… but is it a real phenomenon [1]?  

Recent studies suggest that while college students (both male and female) do gain weight during their first year at school, it’s more to the tune of five pounds rather than fifteen [2] [3]. 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 ten percent of the freshmen gained 15 pounds (or more), and a full 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 first day of school and graduation was between seven and nine 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” (quaffing six or more drinks at least four days each month) were about a pound heftier than their tee-totaling friends.

Other studies reinforce the message that while young people do tend to gain weight during their college years, it doesn’t happen overnight (or even over one year). In fact, it might not have to do with attending university in the first place — the Ohio State University study found that students were (on average) just a half-pound heavier than their non-collegiate peers. According to the researchers, this may be because many 17- or 18- year-olds are simply not at their full adult size (both in height and 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.

Why It Matters

Type “Freshman 15” into any search engine, and a plethora of well-meaning advice articles will pop up. Common tips include eating well-balanced meals (and avoiding the all-you-can-eat dessert buffet table) 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 handy tips even 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 [4] [5]. 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.

The Takeaway

Although the Freshman 15 is a myth (for most), college students are still prone to gain a few pounds en route to their diplomas. Instead of fostering fear of weight gain, perhaps universities should rethink how they approach health and nutrition. Since many young people live independently for the first time when they go off to college, those four years can be an ideal time for individuals to explore which eating and exercise habits make them feel healthiest and happiest. By teaching students how to develop balanced habits for life, colleges and universities can equip young adults with the knowledge to live healthfully in school and beyond.

Looking for colleges and universities that prioritize student health? Check out our list of the 25 healthiest schools in the United States.

Got something to say? Share it in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @SophBreene.

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Works Cited +

  1. The Freshman 15: is it real? Mihalopoulos NL, Auinger P, Klein JD. Department of Pediatrics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA. Jounrnal of American College Health. 2008 Mar-Apr;56(5):531-3.
  2. Changes in body weight and fat mass of men and women in the first year of college: A study of the “freshman 15”. Hoffman DJ, Policastro P, Quick V, Lee SK. Department of Nutritional Sciences, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ, USA. Journal of American College Health. 2006 Jul-Aug;55(1):41-5.
  3. Freshman 15: fact or fiction? Morrow ML, Heesch KC, Dinger MK, Hull HR, Kneehans AW, Fields DA. Department of Health and Exercise Science, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2006 Aug;14(8):1438-43.
  4. Prevention of eating disorders in at-risk college-age women. Taylor CB, Bryson S, Luce KH, Cunning D, Doyle AC, Abascal LB, Rockwell R, Dev P, Winzelberg AJ, Wilfley DE. Department of Psychiatry, Stanford University Medical School, Stanford, CA, USA. Archetypes of General Psychiatry. 2006 Aug; 63(8):881-8.
  5. Freshman women and the “Freshman 15”: perspectives on prevalence and causes of college weight gain. Smith-Jackson T, Reel JJ. Department of Public and Community Health, College of Science and Health, Utah Valley University, Orem, UT, USA. Journal of American College Health. 2012;60(1):14-20.

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