Oh that rumored college “freshman fifteen.” We’ve all heard of the myth, but is it true and what are the reasons for weight gain or loss while attending college? A new University of Michigan study finds that college women with roommates who are overweight are actually prone to gain less than those with slim roommates. A full pound and a half less, as was presented this summer at the annual meeting of the American Society of Health Economists.

Kandice Kapinos, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research focusing on labor and health economies, states:

This finding seems counterintuitive, but there are some good explanations for why it may be happening. It’s not really the weight of your roommate that’s important, but the behaviors your roommate engages in. These behaviors are what may really be ‘contagious.’

Heavier roommates are more likely to diet, exercise more, take dietary supplements and participate in college rationed meal plans thus creating a healthier environment for friends and roommates.

Kapinos continues:

Previous studies have suggested that having an obese spouse, friend or sibling increases one’s likelihood of becoming obese, but these relationships are obviously not random. People pick their friends and spouses, and they often select people who are similar to themselves. And even though we don’t pick our siblings, we share a genetic inheritance and an early environment that may influence adult weight.

In the first of its kind, a study by Kapinos and Marquette University economist Olga Yakusheva analyzed college weight gain by pairing roommates randomly (which is normally the case on U.S. college campuses), and then observing consumption habits. One hundred forty-four females were assessed in this study. At fall semester, students submitted their height and weight and spoke about their weight management techniques including recent diets, frequency of exercise per week indoors and out and if they, in fact, had signed up for an unlimited or rationed meal plan at school. It was found that social influence has an effect on weight gain in female college students.

Why is this such an important issue? Simply, obesity prevalence in young adults 18 to 29, had the largest percentage increase of all age groups, 96% from 1988 to 2006.

Kapinos and Yakusheva also found that food accessibility was a key factor in weight gain. Freshmen assigned to living quarters with onsite dining gained more weight than those who had to venture outside for food.

This study will expand in upcoming semesters, and the researchers will look at a larger sample of students to see if roommate weight patterns persist and if there are other environmental influences on weight gain and loss. Also they will test to determine if race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status are key influencers.

In conclusion, Kapinos says:

Our hope is that this line of research will have practical implications for university administrators and more generally for public health efforts aimed at reducing obesity.

Source: University of Michigan Institute for Social Research

Written by Sy Kraft (BA)