Even if you didn’t go to college, you’ve likely heard of the dreaded Freshman Fifteen. It’s the expression used to refer to all the weight—supposedly 15 pounds, hence the name—packed on by college students during their freshman year.
The Freshman 15 is usually attributed to increased alcohol intake or full-on binge drinking; all-you-can-eat dining hall buffets; the late-night consumption of high-calorie, high-fat foods like pizza; high stress levels due to classes and exams; and lack of exercise.
A new study conducted by Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research may have debunked the fifteen pound theory. Most college students don’t gain nearly that much weight—average weight gain is just about 2.4 pounds for women and 3.4 pounds for men, reports U.S. News and World Report’s Health Buzz. One of the study’s co-authors, Jay Zagoirsky, came right out and said that the freshman 15 isn’t accurate.
“The ‘freshman 15’ is a media myth,” Zagorsky, an Ohio State research scientist, said in a press release issued by the university. “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,” he added.
The L.A. Times states that the issue of college freshmen gaining weight was mentioned in a 1985 report and fashion website Styleite points out that a 1989 Seventeen magazine cover includes the tagline “Fighting the Freshman 15” as an example of just how long the term has been used by the media.
Zagorsky’s co-author was Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The pair’s study uses data from 7,418 young adults from across the country. The young people participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) 1997. As explained by Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research, which conducts the NLSY for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, participants were between the ages of 13 and 17 in 1997 and were interviewed by the same people each year since then. They were asked about their weight and college status each year, along with many other questions.
Zagorsky and Smith found that no more than 10 percent of the college freshman gained 15 pounds or more. About 25 percent of college freshmen even reported losing weight! The in-depth study examined a variety of factors, including whether students lived in dorms, were full- or part-time students at private or public colleges, and more. None of the factors studied made a significant difference on weight gain.
However, the study did find that college students do gain some weight over the years, but not as much as most people fear. “Not only is there not a ‘freshman 15,’ there doesn’t appear to be even a ‘college 15’ for most students,” Zagorsky explained. Women gain an average of seven to nine pounds during the college years while men gain an average of twelve to thirteen pounds.
He stressed to MSNBC Today that the media should stop using the term freshman 15 because enough people already suffer from body image problems and eating disorders. Zagorsky believes that people should learn to learn to eat healthy while they are young, and feels that college is a great time to figure out healthy eating habits on your own without your parents looking over your shoulder.
If you’re still concerned about gaining weight during college even though the freshman fifteen appears to be a myth, these five tips may come in handy:
1. Don’t eat while you’re distracted. Eating while you’re also doing something else, like while you’re studying or watching TV, will most likely cause you to eat way more than you intended to or more than you even realize. You’ll keep sticking your hand in that bag of chips without even paying attention.
2. Don’t overdo it. There’s no need to go into starvation mode, but watch what you eat—especially if you have an unlimited meal plan or only frequent the all-you-can-eat cafeterias. Even though it’s super-delicious, that creamy mac and cheese and those awesome desserts will still be available tomorrow.
3. Don’t skip meals. As tempting as it is, don’t skip meals. If you skip one meal, you’ll most likely go overboard at the next one. If you know that you’re going to wake up ten minutes before class, you won’t have time to stop and eat breakfast (or lunch, as the case may be.) That’s why you should keep some relatively healthy snacks in your dorm (or in your backpack or locker, if you’re a commuter student).
4. Get physical. Even if you don’t hit the gym to work out, walk as much as possible. This should be fairly easy if you live on campus since you’ll be walking to and from class. Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible.
5. Watch the liquids. Calories from beverages are still calories! Some students will argue that they don’t drink beer or alcohol, but keep in mind that other beverages also pack a punch. Sodas, energy drinks, coffee concoctions from Starbucks, even so-called healthy smoothies can be loaded with extra calories.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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