The Freshman 15 is a Myth, But Weight Gain in College Isn’t
How to avoid starting a trend that could snowball in your 20s and beyond
There’s a rumor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, where my son goes to school, that nobody gains the “Freshman 15” thanks to the imposing hill in the center of the campus, one that most underclassman are forced to hike up and down many times a day.
The rumor isn’t true, but neither is the idea of the “Freshmen 15. ”
“The freshman 15 is a media myth,” Ohio State University research scientist Jay Zagorsky said in a news release about his 2011 study on the issue. He and his coauthor found that freshman women gained only an average of 2.4 pounds, and freshman men, about 3.4 pounds. Only 10 percent of freshman gained 15 pounds, and one in four actually lost weight.
This doesn’t mean kids should trip off to college and eat everything they want. The 3 pounds that students gain, on average, as freshmen is no more than they would if they weren’t in school, but the pounds continue to pile up, Zagorsky found. By graduation time, the average female graduate has put on between 7 and 8 pounds and the average college male, about 12 to 13 pounds.
So what can college students do to avoid weight gain? Researchers and dietitians give this advice.
Watch the drinking. “As smart as college students are, they need to be reminded of basic math,” says Jessica Crandall, RDN, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A bottle of beer has about 150 calories. If they are drinking alcohol regularly for the first time, even an extra 200 calories three or four times a week can start to add up, notes Crandall. In his study, Zagorsky found drinking alcohol was the only definitive culprit associated with college weight gain.
Bring a scale to school. It’s hard to resist goodies ranging from chocolate chip cookies to cinnamon buns in all-you-can-eat college meal plans. In a Cornell University study, researchers armed one group of freshmen with a scale and asked them to weigh themselves every day. The other group wasn’t given a scale. The results? The students in the group given a scale didn’t gain weight. The daily feedback loop apparently was enough to keep the extra pounds off, according to the researchers.
Eat breakfast no matter when you get up. “I tell students that no matter what time they wake up, they should eat at least some breakfast,” says Crandall. “We talk about inexpensive, high protein snacks they could keep in their refrigerator, like a hard boiled egg and a banana” that they could have when they wake up — even if that’s at 1 p.m.
Don’t get addicted to smoothies. Consume whole fruits instead of fruit juice: That’s the advice of the Tufts University department of nutrition, which says juice contains too much sugar and not enough fiber to keep you full.
Get regular exercise. Sure, it can be hard when you have to hit the books, but Tufts University nutritionists advise students to get at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week.
Try to get enough sleep. Studies have shown you’re more likely to become obese if you don’t get enough sleep, according to a Harvard report on sleep.
Eat with your friends rather than in front of your computer. The latter can encourage mindless snacking, Crandall said. As tempting as it can be, avoid too many “grab and go” snacks like soda, chips and coffee with lots of sugar.
Don’t stress out about your weight. According to Rachel Vella-Zarb, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, “People who become most stressed are those who are dieting, and that’s a lot of girls.” She encourages freshman not to engage in restrictive diets. “If they are too restrictive, the girls fall off the diet,” she says. “I’ve found that’s when the stress — and the weight gain — begins.”