A new study dispels the notion that college students gain 15 pounds (6.8 kilos) in their first year, what the authors describe as the “Freshman 15 media myth”, and finds not only that the average weight gain is between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds (1.1 and 1.6 kilos), but moreover, that this has little to do with being at college, and much more to do with becoming a young adult.

The study, due to be published in the December issue of Social Science Quarterly, appeared online last month. Using data from a US-wide survey, it reveals that the typical “freshman” (the term Americans use to describe a young person during their first year at college, also known as “fresher” in the UK), only gains about half a pound more than the same-age person who does not go to college.

First author Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource, tells the press:

“There has been concern that access to all-you-can-eat cafeterias and abundant fast food choices, with no parental oversight, may lead to weight gain, but that doesn’t seem to hold true for most students.”

“The ‘freshman 15’ is a media myth,” says Zagorsky, “Most students don’t gain large amounts of weight. And it is not college that leads to weight gain – it is becoming a young adult.”

Zagorsky and co-author Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, analyzed nationwide data from 7,418 young people who took part in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97). The NLSY is carried out by the Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For the NLSY97, the data collectors interviewed young people aged from 13 to 17 in 1997 and then again every year since. They asked them many questions, including some about their weight and their college status.

After they analyzed the data, Zagorsky and Smith found that female students on average gained 2.4 pounds in their freshman year, while male students gained an average of 3.4 pounds.

Fewer than 10% of students gained 15 or more pounds in their first year, and 25% even reported losing weight.

Other studies have shown that college students tend to underestimate their weight by between 0.5 and 3 pounds: but if this is consistent every year, then it should not make a difference to the results of a study like this one, says Zagorsky.

Zagorsky and Smith say these findings suggest media reporting about the “Freshman 15” may have serious implications.

Repeated use of the term “Freshman 15”, even as a catchy alliterative figure of speech, as a way to attract attention, may “contribute to the perception of being overweight, especially among young women”, says Zagorsky.

“Weight gain should not be a primary concern for students going off to college,” he urges, pointing to the result that one in four actually reported losing weight.

However students should still try and stick to a healthy diet, says Zagorsky, even if weight gain is not a big concern in their first year.

“Students should begin developing the habit of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. Those habits will help them throughout their lives,” he adds.

Zagorsky and Smith also looked at what else might be linked to weight gain at college: including whether students lived in dorms, were attending college full- or part-time, doing a two- or four-year course, went to a public or private institution, or drank heavily (classed as six of more alcoholic drinks on at least four days a month).

They found none of these was significantly tied to weight gain, except for drinking heavily, and even then, compared to those who were not heavy drinkers, the heavy drinkers gained less than a pound in their first year of college.

Zagorsky also pointed out that dorm living was not linked to weight gain, thus dispelling a notion that living in dorms promotes weight gain among freshmen.

However, looking at the year-on-year trend, the results do show a steady gain in weight during college years. Over the duration, the average female student puts on between 7 and 9 pounds, while the average male student puts on between 12 and 13 pounds.

But even this, does not approach the 15 pounds of the “Freshman 15” myth:

“Not only is there not a ‘freshman 15,’ there doesn’t appear to be even a ‘college 15’ for most students,” says Zagorsky.

He and Smith also found that students who worked during their college years put on an extra 0.2 pounds for each month they worked, and that when they leave college, students continue to gain weight, to the tune of 1.5 pounds a year in the first four years after leaving.

He and Smith conclude:

“Anti-obesity efforts directed specifically at college freshmen will likely have little impact on obesity prevalence among young adults.”

Zagorsky says the study shows there is no higher risk of obesity resulting from gaining weight in the freshman year, but demonstrates instead, that people gain weight steadily throughout early adulthood.

“Anyone who gains 1.5 pounds every year will become obese over time, no matter their initial weight,” he explains.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD