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Health & Wellness

The Good News? The Freshman 15 Is a Myth

The bad news? The graduation gain is not


Nutrition and healthy eating expert Joan Salge-Blake (SAR’84), a Sargent College clinical associate professor, is the author of Nutrition & You; Nutrition & You: Core Concepts to Good Health & Nutrition; and Nutrition: From Science to You. In 2009, she was named the Annie Galbraith Outstanding Dietician and the Outstanding Dietetic Educator by the Massachusetts Dietetic Association.

Incoming college freshmen may be relieved to know that research supporting the idea that the average college freshman gains 15 pounds is slim and that such a weight gain is not a given. In fact, some research suggests that the Freshman 15 is a myth, since weight gain either didn’t occur at all or didn’t occur in the majority of college students studied. Other studies found that some students gained weight, but on average it was less than five pounds.

The problem may not be the freshman year, but rather the cumulative years during college. A 2011 study of more than 7,000 college students published in Social Science Quarterly found that these students gained on average only 2.5 to 3.5 pounds during their freshman year. The research did find, however, that over the course of four years at college, on average the women gained approximately 9 pounds and the men 13 pounds. While this amount of weight isn’t earth-shattering, obese adolescents are unfortunately more likely to become obese adults.

“College can be an ideal time to not only educate students about nutrition and positive lifestyle habits, but also be a supportive environment whereby healthy foods are accessible and physical activity is encouraged,” says Patricia K. Smith, a University of Michigan economics professor and one of the study authors.

Certain “elective” behaviors, such as eating when stressed and eating junk foods, have been shown to be associated with weight gain, but gaining weight doesn’t have to be part of your college curriculum.

The list of Dos and Don’ts below will help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls of college life:

  • Do get enough sleep. It’s not surprising that studies show that college students often fall short in the sleep department. Insufficient sleep can cause an increase in the hunger-promoting hormone ghrelin and a decrease in the hunger-suppressing hormone leptin. Naps are an excellent way to catch up on lost sleep.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Research suggests that adolescents who don’t eat breakfast have an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese. If you skip this important meal, odds are you will be hungry later on in the morning and more likely to find yourself impulsively snacking on high-calorie food from a vending machine or college convenience store. Rise and dine on a bowl of high-fiber, whole-grain cereal with skim milk. Add some protein, such as string cheese or a handful of nuts, to help you through the morning.
  • Do walk off your stress. A major lifestyle change, such as going off to college, can be stressful initially. When you feel wound up, lace up your sneakers and release some of the emotional stresses of college life on the walking path around campus or on the treadmill rather than in the dining hall.
  • Don’t study with the microfridge. If studying at night causes you to munch, don’t study in your room surrounded by your roommate’s chips and other snacks piled high in the dorm refrigerator. Study at the campus library, where eating is prohibited.
  • Do make sure fruits and veggies are a part of all your meals. Eating a salad or vegetable soup before your lunch or dinner has been shown to help cut back on the calories consumed at the meal. How? Fruits and vegetables will “fill you up before they fill you out,” so they are kind to your waist.
  • Don’t drink your calories. A 20-ounce bottle of soda, sports drink, or energy drink can pack over 250 calories. Drink low-fat or skim milk with your meals and water (zero calories) in between.

Joan Salge-Blake can be reached at salge@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @joansalgeblake and read her weekly column, “Nutrition and You,” on Boston.com.


11 Comments on The Good News? The Freshman 15 Is a Myth

  • Ben on 08.30.2012 at 8:10 am

    Thanks for the straightforward advice. One quibble I have is that naps often interfere with nighttime sleep, leading to a pattern of difficulty falling asleep and shorter continuous sleep. A long, uninterrupted period of sleep is quite important, as REM increases through the course of the night and is the most restorative sleep. A short night and napping does not allow for solid REM sleep. Much better to set aside 8 hours in one go!

  • Amy on 08.30.2012 at 8:26 am

    Along with not drinking your calories you might discuss alcohol as well..

    • Anne on 09.24.2012 at 11:53 am

      I totally agree. Nothing is mentioned in this article about weight gain related to drinking. A major omission.

  • A correction on 08.30.2012 at 10:04 am

    These recommendations are spot on except for the second one.
    First, the lipid hypothesis is wrong. Dietary fat doesn’t make you fat. Sugar makes you fat. Avoid sugar in all its forms (even no-calorie sweeteners).
    Also, it’s not calorie-in-calorie-out, and where you get your calories from matters.
    If you really want to lose weight and keep weight off, get sleep, get moderate exercise, and eat a high fat, high protein diet with an emphasis on the quality of your fats and proteins. Get bread and all grains out of your diet entirely. There is nothing essential about grains and there is nothing in them that you cannot get in much higher concentrations from vegetables and meats. (Yes, that includes fiber.)
    In short, go paleo. This is a good website for an introduction: marksdailyapple.com
    Also, skipping breakfast can be a great thing if it is not combined with calorie restriction and you are eating good food. I’ve lost 20 lbs this summer by eating paleo (80-90% strict) and skipping breakfast while getting my full calories in the rest of the day. For a good introduction to intermittent fasting, go here: leangains.com. I thought it was crazy at first, too, but it really works.
    Also: get sunshine every day (even if it’s just 15 minutes) without sunscreen on.

    • Susie F on 08.30.2012 at 5:05 pm

      Sorry “A correction” but you’re citing a bunch of internet sites describing fad diets to “correct” an acknowledged expert. who are you anyway? You’ve lost 20 lbs this summer – but hey, so have I – but I’m not sure they’ll be gone in November. And I’ll bet yours come back too….

    • Elsee on 08.30.2012 at 10:49 pm

      Completely agreed. Thanks for the link to leangains, I have been experimenting with Intermittent Fasting and so far really truly love it. My whole life I have been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and always ate a huge, (healthy) breakfast. I have always awakened hungry, and then after eating a big breakfast, I am hungry again only a few hours later. Now that I’ve cut out grains I actually have real energy and am not hungry all day long! Cutting out breakfast has just topped it off for me.

      Drinking lots of water and avoiding or limiting alcohol and artificial sweeteners are also on my list!

  • bob on 08.30.2012 at 12:34 pm

    Just like the moon landing!

  • Rachel Atcheson on 08.30.2012 at 5:39 pm

    I found the Do’s & Don’ts to be really helpful! As someone who has lived on a plant-based (vegan) diet throughout college, most of this advice rings especially true! Especially including fruits and veggies in every meal, I’ve found my energy level at its all-time best when I constantly stick to this rule (especially raw veggies)!

  • @ "A correction" on 08.30.2012 at 6:03 pm

    First, where does the article state that dietary fat makes you fat? Sugary foods are included under the umbrella term “high-calorie foods”. Also, noncaloric sweeteners are not sugar.

    Please cite reputable research supporting the idea that skipping breakfast is “a great thing” as long as “you are eating good food” for the rest of the day – I’d like to see it.

  • ??? on 10.16.2012 at 11:00 am

    I’m not sure why an article with generally good nutritional tips needs to be couched under a debunked-myth kind of hook. Weight-gain over four years — especially from 18-22 — amounting to 9 and 13 pounds for women and men, respectively, is not necessarily bad! These are transitional years from adolescence to adulthood; of course there will be weight-gain. Again, the overall advice is certainly sound, and may be helpful for some readers, but I have a problem with how the first two paragraphs are constructed.

  • Recycling on 10.16.2012 at 11:04 am

    Further, why are we recycling articles? This was written on 8/30/2012 and is an “Editor’s Pick” at the top of the H&W Section for today, 10/16/2012? No new information? Please.

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