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Published on October 03, 2016

The ‘freshman 15’: Urban myth or based on truth?The ‘freshman 15’: Urban myth or based on truth?

The term “freshman 15” refers to the 15 pounds college freshmen gain during their first year away from home, once parental controls are no longer in play. Common college behaviors such as gorging on junk food, eating larger than average portions or drinking to excess can all be factors, but is this assumption even true?

A study published in the Journal of American College Health a few years ago indicates that the clever alliteration isn’t necessarily accurate. In their study of 125 freshmen at a private university in the Northeast, researchers discovered that only five percent had actually gained 15 pounds or more, seven months after beginning the school year.

But the numbers aren’t all good. About half of the students reported gaining anywhere from one to 20 pounds. Of those that did gain weight, the average amount was 7.4 pounds. The study pointed out that this rate of weight gain is more than six times the average for the general population.

If the students continued to gain weight at that rate for several years, they would become obese, defined as having a BMI of 30 or higher. Obesity can cause a host of other problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

One study wouldn’t be enough to cause alarm, but a meta-analysis of 32 peer-reviewed studies on the same subject yielded eerily similar numbers. The meta-analysis examined studies of a total of 5, 549 freshmen from the years 1980 to 2014 and was published in the journal BMC Obesity last year.

Weight Gain is Not a Given

Before you think you or your child are doomed, it’s important to keep in mind that weight gain is not inevitable. We asked Amy Rose Sager, dietician for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod for suggestions on how to stay health during your freshmen year.

“Going to college is a step into the real world,” she said. “This is where students should learn healthy habits that carry them through life.”

Sager, who also owns Leap into Wellness, a health and nutrition business offers the following tips to students:

  • Invest in a mini fridge. This will allow you to stock up on healthful snacks like hummus, vegetables, fruit and yogurt when you need to eat on the run. You can also save leftovers from a large meal to eat later.
  • Never skip breakfast. It sets you up for the mindless eating of snacks later. A quick and healthy breakfast could be a bowl of plain oatmeal with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a diced apple or a bowl of low fat granola with milk.
  • Plan ahead. Look at dining hall menus online and decide on a healthy option ahead of time. That way you will be less apt to make impulse choices when tempted by the sight of unhealthy things like pizza or a burger.
  • Make better choices. Most schools have done a great job of offering healthier options to students. For example, a recent online menu for the dining halls at Colby College in Waterville, Maine showed plenty of things to choose from. You could have a tofu scramble made with locally grown soybeans for breakfast, a wheat berries salad for lunch and lemon pepper haddock with brown rice and roasted asparagus for dinner.
  • Be careful at salad bars. Salad bars can be great, but they also offer high calorie pitfalls like cheese, croutons and bacon bits. “Look for a good portion of your plate to be vegetables,” Sager said. She advised being careful of salad dressings too. Creamy ones are loaded with calories and bottled salad dressings have excess calories, salt and additives. A little olive oil and vinegar is healthier.
  • Avoid drinking high calorie beverages. Cocktails, beer and sugary drinks like soda contain about 150 empty calories per serving. If you are at a party and binge on five beers, you’ve added 750 calories to your day. That is about the equivalent of a full meal. Do that every weekend, and the pounds will pile on. Instead choose water, unsweetened ice tea or hot herbal tea.
  • Don’t make food or alcohol the centerpiece of social events. Rather than having a beer and pizza party, try organizing group hikes, kayaking trips, cycling events or photo scavenger hunts. Exercising and spending time outdoors are known stress busters. During the winter or in the evening, plan game nights, dance parties, movie nights, or karaoke. “You don’t need to have alcohol to have fun,” Sager said.
  • Pick a lifetime sport. Even if you don’t play team sports while in school, the college years are a good time to pick a sport you can continue to enjoy for the rest of your life that doesn’t require a team to participate. You could learn how to play tennis, go to the gym or swim, if your school has a pool.

“You want to get into some good habits about how to put a healthy meal together and remain physically active after college because these things are important after college too,” Sager said.