Freshman 15: Fact or Fiction?

August 23rd, 2012 by Sara Upson

As colleges and universities across the country are gearing up for the start of the semester there are many excited and anxious freshmen ready to embark on their college experience.  One thought that may be pressing on their mind is the concern over the freshmen 15- the infamous fifteen pounds that freshmen gain their first year in college.  Is this concern fact- something college newbies should be concerned about, or fiction- something not to spend much time worrying about?

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Where did the term ‘freshmen 15’ come from? 

The term freshmen 15 first appeared in a 1985 scholarly article where the average weight gain was 8.8 pounds.  (Modest rounding at its best!)  The next article did not appear until 1989 where one first year student’s fight against weight gain was featured in Seventeen magazine.  It appears that it was this Seventeen magazine article where the term freshmen 15 was first coined.  The popular media did not grasp onto the concept of the freshmen 15 until the late 1990s.   At this time, articles on freshmen weight gain exploded into the media.  Shockingly, no publications even questioned the reality of the freshmen 15 until much later!  Research studies later yielded some interesting results.


The Big Question- Is the freshmen 15 real?

A simple Google search revealed 17,500,000 results for freshmen 15.  I think we can agree that this is definitely something that students (and perhaps even parents) are worried about. One study identified that 96% of college freshmen had heard of and could accurately define the freshmen 15.  29% of the students polled were extremely worried about gaining 15 pounds their first year.4  However, is this concern valid?    A search for peer reviewed, scholarly articles on freshmen 15 revealed only 82 results.  This amount is a surprising difference than the vast amount of information found on Google.  Together, these studies revealed that the average amount of weight gain for a first year student was 3 to 5 pounds.  Some students did gain more, some gained less, and some students even lost weight.   One study confirmed that college was not even a factor in weight gain.  Individuals who held jobs instead of going to college ended up gaining the same amount of weight.5   First year students everywhere can breath a sigh of relief!  It is safe to say that the freshmen 15 is Fiction.

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In college there are plenty of other things to worry about than your weight, and a significant fear of weight gain can actually lead to harmful outcomes.  Food restriction can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies resulting in malnutrition.   College freshmen are still growing and malnutrition could put them at risk for anemia and for osteoporosis later in life.  It is also important to know that fear of weight gain can lead to dangerous eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.  The incidence of eating disorders peaks between the ages of 16-20 coinciding with the time that students enter college.1

If you are starting college or in college and worried about your weight, there are plenty of healthy choices you can make.   However, dieting is not one of them.  Research shows, that dieting in college is actually a predictor of weight gain.  One study showed that students who were dieting to lose weight actually gained twice as much weight as former dieters and three times as much weight as individuals who had never dieted! 2

To feel your best, instead of focusing on your weight, choose to focus on your health.  Some basic healthy suggestions for college students include:

  • Eat breakfast daily.

It is true; breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Eating breakfast will boost your metabolism and will give you energy to help you focus.  In addition, a balanced breakfast can help prevent over eating later in the day.  Don’t even think about skipping breakfast to lost weight, research consistently shows that people who eat breakfast actually tend to weigh less than individuals who do not eat breakfast.  Even if you are not hungry in the morning having breakfast can help set your day on the right start.  Try to eat breakfast within one hour after waking.

  • Eat moderate portions throughout the day.

It is important that you provide your body with adequate nutrition throughout the day.  This means having a moderately sized meal or snack about every 2-3 hours (which translates to 3 meals per day with 2-3 snacks in between).  Research shows that eating 5-6 times per day is ideal for your metabolism and can help to boost your overall energy levels.  Eating throughout the day will also prevent excessive hunger that can lead to over eating for some people.  Skipping meals is not a good way to try to lose weight.  Not only can this slow your metabolism, it can also lead to over eating later in the day resulting in consumption of the same amount or even more calories than would have been consumed if eating was spread throughout the day.   Even if you are busy during the day, plan ahead.  Take your lunch and snacks with you to ensure that you are getting adequate nutrition throughout the day.

  • Eat a variety of foods.

Eating a variety of foods not only increases satisfaction, it helps to ensure that you are getting the vitamins and minerals that you need.   Eat foods from all of the food groups and eat a variety of foods within the food groups.  Omitting an entire food group can lead to deficiencies.

  • Stay hydrated

Maintaining hydration can help you feel your best and will help maintain your concentration.  Most people need at least 64 oz (8 cups) of water each day for adequate hydration.  Exposure to heat, physical activity, caffeine, illness, alcohol consumption, high fiber foods, and some medications can increase the amount of fluids your body needs to stay hydrated.  Carrying a water bottle with you is an easy way to help keep yourself hydrated.

  • Handle stress and exhaustion without turning to food.

College is a stressful time; however using food to handle stress, exhaustion, or strong emotions will negatively impact your health.  Instead of turning to food learn to develop stress management skills to protect your health and well being.  These are vital skills can be used throughout your life.  In addition, get an adequate amount of sleep each night, for most people this is 7-8 hours of sleep.  Not only will this help to prevent exhaustion, it can also help you to feel your best, and help to regulate your hunger and fullness cues.

  • Exercise

Choose to exercise and take part in regular physical activity that you enjoy.  Time and time again, research shows if you enjoy the exercise you are doing and see intrinsic benefits (i.e. stress reduction, increase in energy levels, increase in quality of sleep etc.) then you are more likely to continue long term.  Exercise can include a wide variety of activities and is not just limited to going to the gym.  Most colleges and universities offer intramural sports and club teams, which can be a great way to stay active, do something you enjoy, and meet other people.  The recommendation for regular exercise is 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.  Regular exercise can help moderate stress, improve your sleep quality, increase your overall health, increase your focus and concentration, and can help you feel your best.

  • Alcohol

If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation.  Moderation is defined by the American Heart Association as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One drink is defined as 12oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, 1.5 oz of spirits or liquor, or 1 mixed drink. And, you cannot save up all your drinks for one day of the week!   Alcohol is considered to be empty calories as nutritionally alcohol does not provide much benefit at all.  It is important to know that excessive alcohol is frequently cited as a source for excessive weight gain, and it can increase your risk of experiencing violence, accidents, high blood pressure, and memory loss, as well as, alcoholism, suicide, obesity, stroke, and breast cancer.  If you feel pressured to drink alcohol, it is good to know that research consistently shows that despite the fact that most students drink alcohol responsibly, or not at all, they believe that other students drink considerably more than they actually do.

  • If you are concerned about your diet or have questions- seek help.

The transition to college can be overwhelming.  All of a sudden your food and exercise decisions are solely up to you.  If you are concerned about your diet, exercise patterns, or have questions- seek help.  Most colleges and universities have registered dietitians on staff to help you with your nutrition concerns.  If there is not a dietitian available at your school, the school should be able to provide you with a list of referrals to dietitians in the community, or you can always find a dietitian on the internet.  If you are searching for nutrition information on the internet, be sure to check that your information is coming from a reliable, valid source.  There is an overwhelming amount of nutrition misinformation available on the web.  It is always a good idea to seek help if you are unsure about your diet, if you have noticed changes in your eating patterns or appetite, or if you just want to learn more about nutrition.   Seeking help with your nutrition can increase your ability to make balanced eating choices so that you can feel your best, and can increase your confidence related to your nutrition decisions.  It is better to invest in your health and be reassured that you are doing the right thing than wait until it is too late.

Resources:

  1. Brown, C.  The information trail of the ‘Freshman 15’- a systematic review of a healthy myth within the research  and popular literature.  Health Information and Libraries Journal.  2008; 25: 1-12.
  1. Lowe, M., et al.  Multiple types of dieting prospectively predict weight gain during the freshman year of college. Appetitie. 2006; 47: 83-90.
  1. Pliner, P. and Saunders, T., Vulnerability to freshman weight gain as a function of dietary restraint and residence.  Physiology & Behavior.  2008; 93: 76-82.
  1. Vella-Zarb, R., and Frank, E.  The ‘Freshman 5’:  A meta-analysis of weight gain in the freshman year of college.  Journal of American College of Health.  2009; 58: 161-166.
  1. Zagorsky, J., and Smith, P.  The Freshman 15: A critical time for obesity intervention or media myth.  Social Science Quarterly.  2011; 92: 1389- 1407.

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