The Freshman 15: Does college cause students to gain weight?

 

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Is there such a thing as the “Freshman 15”? A new study suggests students gain about a pound — not 15 — during their first year of college and young adults who attend college gain less weight than those who do not.

The issue: More than 70 percent of American adults age 20 and older are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Policymakers and public health leaders are keenly interested in helping people prevent and control weight gain, which can lead to numerous health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. To develop such programs, it’s important to understand the factors that affect an individual’s attitudes and habits related to food and exercise.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses that healthy habits developed in childhood can last for many decades. But the transition from high school to college can prompt significant lifestyle changes as students become more independent from their parents, making their own decisions about what to eat and how to spend their time.

An academic study worth reading: “The Effects of College on Weight: Examining the ‘Freshman 15’ Myth and Other Effects of College Over the Life Cycle,” published in Demography, December 2016.

Study summary: Charles Baum, a professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University, asserts that his study is the first to rigorously examine the effects of college on a person’s weight over most of his or her lifetime. He used data from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, an ongoing, annual survey of 8,984 people that began in 1997, when they were between the ages of 12 and 16. Baum examined data related to college attendance and weight, excluding pregnant women and new mothers, whose weight is expected to fluctuate, as well as individuals weighing less than 80 pounds or more than 400 pounds. He looked at survey respondents’ weights in high school, after each year of college and up through 2010, when respondents were between the ages of 25 and 31.

To gauge the longer-term effects of college attendance, the author also analyzed data collected from an earlier National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began in 1979. He looked at data collected from those respondents each year through 2010, when these respondents were ages 45 to 52.

Key takeaways:

  • Individuals aged 17 to 23 who were enrolled in college weighed less than those who were not. College students in this age group weighed an average of 157.9 pounds compared to 168.4 pounds for individuals not in college.
  • Men and women who went to college gained less weight than those who did not. When Baum looked at the weights of male college students during their freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years of college as well as during the year immediately before college and the year immediately afterward, he found they had gained an average of 14.1 pounds over that six-year period. Their counterparts who did not attend college gained 14.8 pounds, on average. For women, the difference was much larger. Female college students gained an average of 8.3 pounds over the six years while women who did not go to college gained 14.6 pounds.
  • College students gain much less weight during their freshman year than the 15 pounds rumored to be typical. Baum estimated that freshman year college attendance causes weight to increase by about a pound.
  • Having a college degree reduces the probability of becoming obese. For individuals who were between the ages of 25 and 31 in 1992 or 2010, college completion lowered their chances of being obese by about 7.5 percentage points. For individuals who were between the ages of 45 and 52 in 2010, the probability of becoming obese was slashed by two-thirds if they had earned a college degree.

 Other resources for journalists:

Related research:

 

Keywords: weight gain, obesity, higher education, dining services, college meal plan, campus dining, junk food

    Writer: | Last updated: January 20, 2017

    Citation: Baum, Charles L. “The Effects of College on Weight: Examining the ‘Freshman 15’ Myth and Other Effects of College Over the Life Cycle,” Demography, December 2016. doi: 10.1007/s13524-016-0530-6.
     

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