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'Freshman Fifteen' is a myth, but weight gain is still a problem

A common, but often undocumented, truism among college students is that they are likely to gain 15 pounds during their freshman year. But now a new study at Rutgers' Cook College has found that the "Freshman Fifteen" phenomenon is exaggerated.

The study focused on a sample of 67 students who had volunteered to be weighed during a health assessment in the university dining halls in the fall, and underwent a second set of measurements in the spring. The average weight gain was seven pounds, the result of eating approximately 112 excess calories per day.

"We found that the first year of college is a period in which weight and fat gain may occur," said Daniel Hoffman, one of the professors from the Rutgers' Cook College Department of Nutritional Sciences on the study team. "But, in the group we studied, the weight gain is less than 15 pounds and is not universal."

However, three-quarters of the students who participated in the study did gain weight.

"This suggests that the freshman year may be an environment where eating more food than the body needs is the predominant state for a significant number of students," said Peggy Policastro, co-author on the paper and a nutritionist in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. "This may be associated with a decreased physical activity level, prompted by no longer participating in organized sports, having less leisure time than while in high school, or making less of an effort to stay active. In addition, significant dietary changes are occurring which may include an increased energy intake due to eating at buffet-style dining halls or increased alcohol intake, although we did not measure these factors in our study."

Hoffman added, "The fact that a relatively small change in the calories consumed compared to energy expended could result in a significant gain of fat underscores the importance for eating a balanced diet and engaging in moderate exercise on a regular basis. In theory, if this level of positive energy balance is maintained through all 4 years of college, these students have the potential to gain 27 pounds by graduation."

This weight gain could increase the risk of students for developing Type II diabetes, hypertension, and hypercholesterolemia, commonly known consequences of obesity. Especially troublesome about obesity among college students is that it often lowers self-esteem and hinders academic performance. "Given these observations, it is becoming increasingly important to determine exact social and environmental factors that may increase a person's risk for gaining weight," said Hoffman.

Policastro has simple recommendations to offer students who want to prevent weight gain. These include cutting calories by choosing a salad instead of chips or fruit instead of ice cream, combined with increasing exercise by walking between campuses instead of riding a bus, exercising during study breaks, or joining an intramural sports team.