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BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

'Freshman 15' weight-gain myth debunked

November 02, 2011|By Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Freshmen may fret about what college may hold for them, but gaining the dreaded "Freshman 15" should probably not be on the worry list. A large nationally representative study finds that the stat is a myth.
Freshmen may fret about what college may hold for them, but gaining the dreaded… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

"Freshman 15," "Freshman 15"… how often do you read that stat about weight gain during that first year of college, and how often do you wonder if it’s true?

Two researchers – one at Ohio State University and the other at the University of Michigan at Dearborn  -- decided to take a thorough look. In a study to be published in the December issue of the journal Social Science Quarterly, they report that…

.. drumroll ..

..it’s not true. It’s a myth.  Weight gain among freshman students is far less than 15 pounds, as a rule — more like three pounds. And it doesn’t seem to have much to do with college: Young adults who don’t go to college gain just about as much weight as those who do.

“Weight gain should not be a primary concern for students going off to college,” coauthor Jay Zagorsky of Ohio State said in a statement released by his university.

The study by Zagorsky and Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan took advantage of a database known as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which compiles random and nationally representative stats on thousands of young adults.

It’s fun to debunk such a “media myth,” as the authors term it (What? We’re responsible?!), and such a study is also guaranteed media coverage, since -- maybe even more than media myths -- we news folks love myth-debunking stories.

But there are also solid, practical reasons to assess such commonly held beliefs. As the authors note, obesity rates have risen significantly in recent years and public health officials are trying to figure out how to combat the climb. Where should they target their efforts to get the best bang for their buck?

“If the ‘Freshman 15’ is a real phenomenon, then the first year of college would be a time to focus efforts to encourage healthy lifestyle habits in order to prevent obesity,” they write. “If, however, the ‘Freshman 15’ is a media myth, then focusing anti-obesity efforts on new college students will prove ineffective and repeated warnings about weight gain may cause unnecessary worry or worsen body image in ways that actually contribute to weight gain.”

The findings also suggest that weight gain climbs slowly but steadily among young adults in general, not just in the first year of college and not just in college. This would seem to imply that youth --all of them -- need educating so they don’t think they can eat and drink what they like with impunity, but that targeting college efforts specifically to freshman year doesn't necessarily make sense.  

The paper has some interesting information about just where the myth came from (although unfortunately, the journal won't let you access the article unless you pay).

The issue of weight gain in freshmen was raised in a 1985 report, "based on a small sample of women at a private university." (Those women gained only eight to nine pounds during their freshman year.)

The first mention of “Freshman 15” came a little later, in 1989 in Seventeen magazine.

By the late 1990s, use of the “Freshman 15” term in articles had risen significantly and (shockingly!) “about half of [the articles] did not refute or question the reality of "Freshman 15." Subsequent studies, which unlike the current one have generally been small and not nationally representative, the new study's authors say, have reported that freshmen do gain weight during freshman year, just not as much as 15 pounds. (The average from the various studies was nearly four pounds.)

Perhaps Zagorsky and Smith could next tackle whether we’re all going to gain five to 10 pounds between now and the new year, which I guarantee you are going to start reading everywhere very soon. 

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