The last time one of my son‘s sitters, a college-bound high school senior, came to watch him, she had a book called something like “how to avoid gaining the freshman 15.” Dorm living, all that access to cafeteria good and no longer having mom reminding you to eat healthy and nutritious food inevitably lead to first-year college packing on the pounds, it is widely assumed. But researchers at Ohio State University are finding that the average student gains between about 2.5 and 3.5 pounds in their first year of college and that the weight gain is little associated with college, as the typical first-year college student only gains about a half-pound more than someone of the same age who did not attend college.
Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study and research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research, calls the “freshman 15″ a “media myth” and suggests that the media’s emphasis on the “freshman 15″ can have a negative impact on students, especially young women:
“Most students don’t gain large amounts of weight. And it is not college that leads to weight gain — it is becoming a young adult.”
“Repeated use of the phrase ‘the freshman 15,’ even if it is being used just as a catchy, alliterative figure of speech, may contribute to the perception of being overweight, especially among young women.”
“Weight gain should not be a primary concern for students going off to college.”
For the study, Zagorsky and colleagues used data from 7,418 young people from around the US who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. NLSY97 started interviewing people between the ages of 13 and 17 in 1997 and has continued to interview them each year since then. Those surveyed were asked what their college status and weight were during each year:
The study found that 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 percent of college freshman gained 15 pounds or more — and a quarter of freshman reported actually losing weight during their first year.
“It’s worth noting that while there’s this focus on weight gain among freshman, we found that one in four actually lost weight,” Zagorsky said.
Students did gain weight over the course of their years in college, with the typical woman gaining between seven and nine pounds and men gaining between 12 and 13 pounds. Furthermore, in their first four years after colleges, graduates gained an average of 1.5 pounds a year — and gaining 1.5 pounds every year would lead to any individual becoming obese, Zagorsky notes.
While the study is a reminder about developing health eating habits and making regular exercise routine, college students need not — ought not — place undue focus on weight gain during their first year or even during college. Ask any student and he or she is sure to tell you that the food offered in the cafeteria leaves much to be desired and is the sort of thing many students learn to refrain from over-indulging in.
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