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'Freshman 15' is more like the 'Freshman 4 to 9'

September 10, 2007|Susan Bowerman | Special to The Times

Hundreds of thousands of college freshmen are swarming onto campuses this month, facing a host of adjustments to new schools, schedules and academic challenges.

Friends and family eagerly awaiting the first visit home may find their loved ones have picked up not only new knowledge and habits but possibly a few extra pounds as well.

The freshman dietary free-for-all is so widely discussed that it seems almost a rite of passage -- both expected and accepted. It appears, though, that the "Freshman 15" is a bit of an exaggeration. The few published studies on the subject show that average weight gains are more in the 4- to 9-pound range.

Research findings are also somewhat inconsistent, due in part to variations in sample sizes, in part because studies are done only on specific groups -- females only, for example -- or because the studies cover varying time periods.

For example, in a small 2004 study of 60 freshmen at Cornell University, published in the International Journal of Obesity, weight gain averaged 4.2 pounds during the students' first 12 weeks on campus. The weight gain was equated to consuming about 175 calories more per day than what is burned -- about one mixed drink or a couple extra slices of bread.

Campus dining hall meals alone accounted for one-fifth of the weight gain, and the frequency of evening snacks and meals eaten on weekends along with consumption of junk foods were also significant predictors of weight gain.

The researchers pointed out that it's tempting to overload plates when there are no restrictions on portions. Because people tend to eat what they are served, under these circumstances calorie intake can skyrocket.

In another recent report in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 27 students at San Jose State University gained an average of 3 pounds during their first 16 weeks on campus, and six piled on more than 6 pounds. Dietary records showed only modest increases in calorie intake, leading the researchers to think declines in physical activity played a significant role.

In a third study, researchers at Rutgers University took body weight and body fat measurements of 217 students during their freshman year, and of 67 who volunteered to be re-measured the following spring. Between visits, those who had gained weight picked up an average of nearly 7 pounds.

(A similar study done at the University of Oklahoma reported a much smaller weight gain -- averaging just more than 2 pounds during the fall-to-spring time period -- but that study included only women and reported weight gain for the group as a whole as opposed to just the group of students who'd gained some weight.)

After results of a 1995 survey on college students' health suggested that the eating and activity patterns of many college students set them up for future health problems, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis decided to study the effect of the first two years of college life on body weight, exercise and eating habits. Diet and lifestyle histories from 764 students revealed that more than half had eaten fried or fast foods at least three times the previous week and that nearly one-third did not exercise.

By the end of their second year, 290 students from the initial sample were reassessed, and 70% had gained weight, picking up an average of 9 pounds.

For many students, taking care of nutritional needs in the first year of college often takes a back seat to bigger issues such as getting established socially and academically.

But erratic eating habits, all-night study sessions, all-you-can-eat dining hall buffets and extracurricular partying -- coupled with decreased activity -- are patterns that may persist into adulthood, so it's a good time to take charge.

Maintaining regular mealtimes, using study breaks to exercise, stocking the fridge with healthful snacks and watching one's intake of high calorie fluids are all steps in the right direction.

(A few resources: and two books, "Fighting the Freshman Fifteen: A College Woman's Guide to Getting Real About Food and Keeping the Pounds Off," "The Dorm Room Diet.")

Parents, meanwhile, can watch what they put in those care packages and rein in the tendency to overindulge kids when they come home on weekends and during the holidays.

Much like the "Freshman 15," holiday weight gain numbers are somewhat exaggerated, but they are still real: In a study of 94 students at the University of Oklahoma, researchers found that the students gained as much as 2 pounds over the long Thanksgiving weekend.


Susan Bowerman is a registered dietitian and assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

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