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Health & Science

Fast Facts on the Freshman 15

Think all students put on pounds when they head off to college? Nutrition experts reveal the real deal on weight gain.

Email icon  bap248@nyu.edu

Leaving home for the first time is scary enough. But the idea that you're probably going to gain weight when you go off to college can make that first year at school even scarier.

Here's something that may surprise you: The legendary "Freshman 15" is actually an over-exaggerated urban myth. "Headlines grab attention, and this is one example," says Suzanne Sonneborn, a registered dietician and nutrition educator at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. It's really impossible to "generalize weight gain in this way," she says.

Here are some surprising facts about weight gain among college students.

1. Some weight gain is normal.

Adolescence, which begins at around age 12 and doesn't end until about age 20, typically means an increase in both height and weight. When freshman start college, they're still adolescents. By the time a student is a senior, however, he or she is likely to be a full-grown adult. "Some weight gain [during these years] is part of the developmental process," says Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietician at the University of Maryland in College Park.

2. It may only be the Freshman 7.

The Freshman 15 has long been a legend among students. But multiple studies show that this level of weight gain is exaggerated. A 2006 study by researchers at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, NJ, found that out of 67 freshmen, 18 lost weight and 49 gained-but only an average of about 7 pounds each. In another study at Mount Mercy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 44 freshmen were studied; 16 of them lost weight, 2 stayed the same and 26 gained an average of about four pounds.

3. You can blame the campus diet.

The most obvious reason for freshman weight gain is often dining hall diets. "Even though most students say they want healthy food options, the greasy, unhealthy food is the first to sell," says Jakubczak. Sean McKew, a senior at Loyola College in Baltimore, MD, can attest to that. "Some college students think that making a healthy choice is to have chicken fingers instead of pizza," he says.

4. Lots of freshmen get fit.

Although weight gain gets all the attention, lots of students actually shed pounds during their first year at school. Many of them are so busy socializing and going to classes that they actually forget to eat. "Some college students get really bogged down by studying and going to classes," said Jakubczak. Others simple don't have the opportunity to consume as much food as they used to. "It wasn't as easy to eat in between meals, which I would do constantly when I lived at home," says Max Strasser, a sophomore at Oberlin College, in Ohio. "And I stopped eating breakfast because it was too much of a hassle."

5. Some colleges take action.

As the issue of obesity among Americans gains widespread attention, colleges are starting to focus on helping kids maintain a healthy weight. At Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, for example, students participate in a program that offers only fresh local food in the cafeterias. "Our initiative was repeatedly identified as a project contributing to student wellness," says Kenyon spokesman, Howard Sacks.

Many college wellness centers also offer resources for students. At the University of New Hampshire, for instance, "we try to dispel the urban legend of the Freshman 15 and give students strategies on how to navigate the dining halls, figure out when they're hungry, and to take care of themselves," Sonneborn says.

SIDEBAR:

How to avoid the Freshman 5, 10, 15 or whatever

1. Every little thing can make a difference.

Cut out high calorie snacks from your daily diet. Over the course of a year, 112 extra calories a day can add 15 pounds, according to the Rutgers survey. Replace the soda (136 calories) with water or put the candy bar (507 calories) down and opt for a piece of fresh fruit.

2. Lay off the booze.

Alcohol is widely available on campuses, and those liquid calories add up. Five beers at 143 calories each equals more than 700 extra calories, about a third of a recommended daily intake. Aside from the booze itself, "it's also the post drinking eating [students] do when they get back," says Jakubczak.

3. Walk when you can.

Walking from class to class is a great way to effortlessly get physical exercise. "I slimmed down a good bit despite my drinking and eating because of the walking and taking the stairs," says Chris Whitby, a senior at New York University, in New York. The bigger the campus, the more exercise you can get. "It's easier to maintain weight in places where students have to walk a lot, no matter where they are," says Marion Nestle, professor at NYU's Steinhardt School.

Freshman usually donít gain as much weight as people believe.

Photo by Bianca Posterli