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Freshman 15: Fact or Fiction?

Friday, August 28, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD


While Travis and I regularly strive to debunk various health myths on Obesity Panacea, it is always a pleasure when we get the opportunity to expose health misinformation to a wider audience, as made possible by popular media outlets. Not that long ago, Travis was interviewed by Alex Hutchinson of the Globe and Mail to clear up issues pertaining to obesity and mortality. Just last week, I had a great discussion with another Globe and Mail reporter, Hayley Mick, who was seeking to debunk the popular myth of the Freshman 15. The result of that discussion is a wonderful article by Hayley which appeared in print yesterday (you can read online here) in which she generously featured my opinions on the topic and even gave a shout-out to our blog.

Thanks again, Hayley!

It is a common held assertion that the average freshman will gain approximately 15lbs during the 2 semesters of 1st year university or college.

However, my experience and the results of numerous studies suggest that the phenomenon is purely myth, and a student who gains 15 lbs during their 1st year is clearly an exception rather than the rule.

The average university school year is approximately 30 weeks. Thus, to gain 15lbs over the 30 weeks of 2 semesters would require an additional 1750kcals per week – which is almost an extra days worth of calories added every week. That is some pretty serious overeating.

During my first year of university, I definitely did not experience a substantial increase in body weight. If anything, the initial stress of being away from home, the foreign environment, the increased academic workload, being forced to eat cafeteria food instead of my mother's delicious cooking - actually caused me to drop a few pounds. By second semester I was well adjusted, had figured out the 'healthier' eating options on campus, and had re-acquainted myself with regular exercise. When I went home for the summer, I had actually arrived in better shape (and approximately 5 pounds lighter) than when I first departed. In her article,

Hayley referred to me as an example of the “freshman minus 5”.

And what does the research suggest?

A study by Morrow and colleagues investigated the idea of a freshman 15, and was published in the journal Obesity back in 2006. This study has one of the largest samples to look at the phenomenon of freshman weight gain, and is the only one (to my knowledge) to assess body composition. In that study, 137 female freshmen at the University of Oklahoma were assessed for body weight and composition at the start of the school year and again at the end of the spring semester.

While the study did find a statistically significant increase in body weight from the start to the end of 1st year, the average weight gain was approximately 2lbs – a far cry from the commonly touted gain of 15 lbs. And of those 2 lbs, about 25% was due to an increase in muscle.

What’s also obvious when examining the results of this study is that about a quarter of the students actually lost weight during the 1st year, and many maintained their baseline weight.

So while I may be in the minority of those who lose weight in 1st year, it appears to be an experience shared by a quarter of first year students.

Additionally, the freshman 15 is more accurately the freshman 2 – but that doesn’t sound nearly as exciting or catchy.

Regardless of the magnitude of weight change, the transition from home to living on your own is a critical period for developing your own dietary and activity patterns, and thus educating 1st year students on proper nutrition and regular exercise is of utmost importance.

Given the appropriate education, first year students can not only resist weight-gain, they can actually improve on the lifestyle habits they had adopted from their parents over the past 17-18 years.

That is, if your parents didn’t have the best lifestyle habits, moving away from home may be an excellent chance to fix the dietary and physical activity patterns that were handed down to you from your folks.

Of course, I had some friends who did adopt a regular diet of beer, pizza, burgers and video games during university - these individuals fared less well with their weight and health - not to mention their academic performance. But this is far from the norm as often popularized by the freshmen 15 myth.

Debunking the myth that all freshmen gain weight may help remove the excuse to eat unhealthy and become sedentary - we often allow suggestion to affect our behaviour more than we'd like to think. If it is expected that most students will gain an average of 15lbs, the incoming students may feel that how their body will look in 8 months it is out of their control.

So all incoming students - don't buy into the hype and fear-mongering. You are more likely to be a freshman 0 than a freshman 15.

Have a great weekend.

Peter


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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Morrow, M., Heesch, K., Dinger, M., Hull, H., Kneehans, A., & Fields, D. (2006). Freshman 15: Fact or Fiction?* Obesity, 14 (8), 1438-1443 DOI: 10.1038/oby.2006.163




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5 Response to "Freshman 15: Fact or Fiction?"

  1. cycloProf Said,

    I think the "15" in freshman 15 has more to do with alliteration than an actual 15 lbs weight gain. That said, I find it hard to accept that freshman do not gain weight with the sudden change in lifestyle that many experience during the first year at University. Especially in the US; as many dorm meal plans are all you can eat, only serve food for short periods for each meal, and usually do not permit to go food for snacks. Hence, this may create a new eating pattern that is likely to be suboptimal.

    Posted on August 28, 2009 at 12:25 PM

     
  2. Speedwell Said,

    When I was in college a little more than 20 years ago, we thought the Freshman 15 came from the fact that we left a life where we had moderate activity (for example required gym, few of us owned cars until graduation) and decent nutrition (Mom cooked balanced meals with sensible portions at home) for a life where we sat around in class and studied heavily, watched a lot of TV for lack of cash for more interesting entertainment, got little sleep, and ate cheap junk food and drank beer and Coke, every day. By and large this actually was the case for most of us.

    Nowadays the highschoolers are about equally likely to be fed on junk food and soda, get little activity, watch as much TV, and not get enough sleep. Maybe we should rename it the High School Freshman 15.

    Posted on August 28, 2009 at 12:57 PM

     
  3. Katkinkate Said,

    I actually lost some weight when I went to Uni from full-time work. I think it was a combination of walking and being too poor to buy much junkfood.

    I've just read the book "Sweet Poison" by David Gillespie and was wondering if anyone here had any comment on it. Anyone here read it yet?

    Posted on August 30, 2009 at 11:01 PM

     
  4. Katkinkate Said,

    Ah, I've just done a web search to look for comments and I mean the recent book about fructose, not the older book about aspartame.

    Posted on August 30, 2009 at 11:04 PM

     
  5. weight loss surgery in Mexico Said,

    I actually lost some weight when I went to Uni from full-time work. I think it was a combination of walking and being too poor to buy much junk food.

    Posted on September 7, 2009 at 6:35 AM

     

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.

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