Debunking the Myth of the ‘Freshman 15′

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Contrary to college folklore, the dreaded “freshman 15″ — the notion that students gain 15 lbs. during their first year at school — is a myth, according to a study from Ohio State University.

“Our results indicate that the ‘freshman 15′ is a media myth,” write the authors of the study, slated to appear in the December issue of the journal Social Science Quarterly, noting that the first mention of the phenomenon in the popular press appeared in 1989 in an article in Seventeen Magazine.

Intuitively, it might make sense that certain aspects of the college lifestyle — late-night pizza runs, unlimited dining hall food, excessive drinking and long hours spent sedentary in the library — would encourage weight gain. And the study did find that students put on a few pounds freshman year, but nowhere close to 15 lbs.

During their first year at school, students gained about two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half pounds: median weight gain in freshman women was 2.4 lbs.; in men, it was 3.4 lbs. Even over their entire college careers, students didn’t gain 15 lbs. In four years, women gained a median 6.5 lbs. and men gained 12.1 lbs, the study found.

“The typical student is not going to get fat,” says Jay Zagorsky, study co-author and research scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research. “When I walk in and start teaching freshmen in September, I don’t see them gain weight before my eyes. They don’t walk in slim and walk out fat.”

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Zagorsky and his co-author, Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan–Dearborn, used data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which included interviews with nearly 9,000 youths aged 13 to 17 in 1997 and has tracked them each year since then. For the survey, respondents, who come from all over the U.S., answer various questions annually, including about their weight and college status.

Based on the data, the authors found, 25% of students reported actually losing weight during their freshman year, and fewer than 10% of freshmen gained 15 lbs. or more. Researchers looked at several factors that could contribute to weight gain, such as living in a dorm, going to school full- or part-time or attending a private school versus a public school. None made a difference.

The only factor that was significantly associated with weight gain was heavy drinking (consuming six or more alcoholic drinks on at least four days per month). But even heavy drinkers gained less than a pound more than those who drank less. Aside from freshman weight gain, says Zagorsky, “There are many reasons for not being a heavy drinker.”

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The data suggest that students gain weight not because they’re students, but because they’re aging. The typical freshman gained less than a pound more than non-college students of the same age. Zagorsky noted also that people continue to gain weight “every single year” after they receive their diploma: in the first four years post-college, survey respondents gained an average of 1.5 lbs. per year — a worrying statistic for the country’s obesity problem.

“It doesn’t matter where you start from — even if you’re starting out extremely thin — if you’re gaining 1.5 pounds every year then you’re going to get fat,” Zagorsky says. “Slow and steady is good when you’re trying to save money, but is not good for weight gain.”

The income hike that comes after graduation probably doesn’t help when it comes to weight, Zagorsky suggests, given that young college grads tend to spend their disposable income on eating and drinking. “Food and drink tend to be relatively high on people’s consumption,” he says. “But that’s all speculation.”

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The study authors urge the media and universities to stop using the term “freshman 15,” since it’s not only misleading, but may also add to problem of distorted body image among college students, particularly young women. They recommend that the message be reframed to reflect reality: that weight gain isn’t inevitable, and that healthy living should take precedence over an unfounded fear of getting fat.

“When someone says a phrase like ‘freshman 15′ over and over again — whether the phrase is true or not — you tend to believe something that’s repeated many, many times,” Zagorsky says. College students have enough worries as it is, and for the average student, it looks like weight gain shouldn’t be among them.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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