A new nation-wide study, appearing in the December 2011 issue of the journal Social Science Quarterly, has revealed that the “freshman 15”, or the 15 pounds that every college freshman supposedly gains, is just a media myth.
The study used data from 7,418 young people from around the country who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in 1997. The NLSY97 interviewed people between the ages of 13 and 17 in 1997 and then interviewed the same people each year since then.
What the study found, contrary to the myth, is that the average student only gains between about 2.5 and 3.5 pounds during the first year of college. Furthermore, going to college had little effect on weight gain. A student who goes to college only gains about a half a pound more than someone who does not.
Moreover, the study found that women gained an average of 2.4 pounds during their freshman year, while men gained an average of 3.4 pounds. No more than 10 percent of college freshman gained 15 pounds or more and 25% of freshman reported actually losing weight during their first year. While 10 percent of freshman did gain the “freshman 15”, this small percentage hardly warrants the overarching applicability of the myth.
The researchers examined a variety of factors that may be associated with freshman weight gain, including whether they lived in a dormitory, went to school full or part-time, pursued a two-year or four-year degree, went to a private or public institution, or was a heavy drinker of alcohol (consuming six or more drinks on at least four days per month). None of these factors made a significant difference on weight gain, except for heavy drinking. Even then, those who were heavy drinkers gained less than a pound more than students who did not drink at that level.
The results do show, however, that college students do gain weight steadily over their college years. The typical woman gains between seven and nine pounds, and men gain between 12 and 13 pounds, but even 4 years worth of college does not equal 15 pounds.
Said the author of the study, research scientist Jay Zagorsky:
Not only is there not a ‘freshman 15,’ there doesn’t appear to be even a ‘college 15’ for most students.
Many people assume this myth to be true because of the commonsensical ways in which college could increase your weight. With abundant fast food choices on most campuses, unlimited access to all-you-can-eat cafeterias, no parental oversight, lack of exercise, late night partying, etc., many of us took this myth at face value. However as we have talked about before, common sense is a poor master.
There are many factors that play into the perpetuation of this myth. Increased attention to physical appearance and attractiveness in the college setting may lead to overestimations of weight. Simple word-of-mouth transmission of the myth, with no skepticism, would also account for why the myth is prevalent. Combine this with the fact that most people see reasonable explanations for the myth, and the cycle continues.
This could also be a case of the confirmation bias. As we have seen before with birth control pills, people tend to remember the times that they have gained weight when they are expecting to, and forget the times when they do not. If you believe this myth, any weight gain that you experience in college will be seen as corroborating evidence for the myth, not the simple unrelated weight gain that it is. Most people gain weight steadily over the years as they get older. Therefore, when we gain weight in college, as most people would anyway, we explain it away with the myth, rather than acknowledge that we have gained weight in general.
Of course, there are harms to perpetuating myths like these. It could lead to increased body-image issues or pressures to remain thin that could have serious psychological and health-related issues for college students. The best thing to do in a situation like this is to recognize that the “freshman 15” is a myth, and to encourage the development of a healthy lifestyle that will benefit students and non-students alike for the rest of their lives.