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The Freshman Fifteen Fallacy: How Much Weight Do College Students Actually Gain?

Fear of the “freshman 15″ weight gain is overrated, says one researcher who found that the average college student packs on only between about 2.5 and 3.5 pounds.

And it might not even be the college lifestyle that causes one’s backpack to become a little more snug. Rather, it’s part of the natural transition into adulthood. The typical freshman only gains about a half-pound more than a same-age person who didn’t go to college.

“Not only is there not a ‘freshman 15,’ there doesn’t appear to be even a ‘college 15′ for most students,” researchers said in a press release.

The researchers concluded that the myth of the freshman 15 may contribute to the perception of being overweight, especially among young women, at a time when they have other priorities. Results appeared in the December issue of Social Science Quarterly.

The study used data from 7,418 young people from around the country who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which followed teenagers from 13 through 17 in 1997 and then interviewed the same people each year since then.

Women gained an average of 2.4 pounds during their freshman year, while men gained an average of 3.4 pounds. No more than 10% of college freshman gained 15 pounds or more, and a quarter of freshman reported actually losing weight during their first year.

The researchers examined a variety of factors that may be associated with freshman weight gain, including whether they lived in a dormitory, went to school full or part time, pursued a two-year or four-year degree, went to a private or public institution, or was a heavy drinker of alcohol (consuming six or more drinks on at least four days per month.)

None of these factors made a significant difference on weight gain, except for heavy drinking and working while studying. Heavy drinking was associated with less than one pound more than students who did not drink that much. Students who both worked and attended college gained an extra one-fifth of a pound for each month they worked.

College students do gain weight steadily over their college years. The typical woman gains between seven and nine pounds, while men gain between 12 and 13 pounds.

The researchers also examined what happened to college students’ weight after they graduated. They found that in the first four years after college, the typical respondent gained another 1.5 pounds per year.

At that pace, eventually, any person would become obese, the researchers said, so college is still a time to establish healthy lifestyles. TeensHealth.com, a project of the children’s health foundation Nemours, offers some sounds advice and resources for handling the transition to college.

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*


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