The “Freshman 15″ is a Myth? Alas, Not for Me.

by Sally on November 10, 2011

This week, a study from Ohio State about the “Freshman 15″ got a lot of press. Namely because the researchers claim it doesn’t exist.

The “Freshman 15″, those extra pounds college students pack on their first year away from home, is actually more like the “Freshman 2.5 to 3.5″, according to the study. “There are lots of things to worry about when you go to college,” researcher Jay L. Zagorsky told the New York Times. “But gaining weight is not one of them. ”

Oh really? Dr. Zagorsky, meet Real Mom Nutrition circa 1991, who ended her Freshman year nearly 15 pounds heavier than the day she moved into her dorm room, who not only came home with a rather unfortunate perm but also an extra chin.

There are many things I wish someone had told me back then (besides “Pluck those eyebrows already” and “Those opaque white tights aren’t doing anything for your figure”).

So when my kids go off to college, I hope I will manage–in between weeping and clinging and “I wish I could always be with you” like the mom in Toy Story 3–to impart the following wisdom upon them:

  • Bread, cereal, rolls, pretzels, crackers, noodles, pancakes, granola bars, and bagels all come from the same food group. Putting them together on a plate does not make a meal.
  • If you’re going to drink way too many beers, do not go back to your dorm room at 3 am and order a pizza and side of cheesy bread.
  • Don’t drink so much beer. It makes you fat.
  • Just because they serve Belgian waffles with soft-serve ice cream after every single meal in the dining hall doesn’t mean you should eat it.
  • You may hate your 8 a.m. geology class. But stopping on the way there to get a cinnamon bun the size of your face three days a week will not make it any better.
  • The serving size for Grape Nuts cereal is 1/2 cup. If you fill your bowl all the way to the top from those nifty bulk cereal dispensers in the cafeteria, you will be eating two cups of Grape Nuts cereal. And 800 calories. That’s without the milk (and side of donuts).
  • Splitting a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cake with your roommate is a awfully sad way to spend a Friday night.
  • It will take nine months to gain it–but likely years to finally lose it.

How about you? Was the “Freshman 15″ a myth–or reality–for you?

Photo by PinkStock Photos!

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny November 10, 2011 at 12:27 pm

You’re killing me with the Belgian waffle/soft serve combo. I was JUST reflecting with a friend this week (I think in a conversation sparked by your soccer snacks post) that for whatever reason I thought it totally appropriate–no, necessary–to eat one of those waffles pretty much every day in college. Although most often I opted for syrup and a large dipper-full of melted butter on top. Totally healthier than ice cream. Totally.

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Yes! It’s like the constant exposure to waffles and ice cream somehow convinces you that’s it’s a perfectly normal way to end a meal every day. Thanks for reading!

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Carole November 10, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Or how about the baked potato the size of a football completely loaded with butter, cheese, sour cream, real bacon bits, etc. Yep, carb loading every night at supper … That worked well for me.

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Ha! Yes, Carole–I forgot about the giant baked potatoes. And my favorite diner at college had homemade macaroni and cheese with a side of homemade bread. All of those super-sized carbs. Ugh!

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Lindsay @ The Lean Green Bean November 10, 2011 at 12:47 pm

hahaha loved this! i definitely can relate to almost all of these. for me, i gained the most weight when i studied abroad in australia my junior year but i definitely battled the freshman weight gain to some degree. and i didn’t lose any of it until i graduated

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Thanks Lindsay. Yes, it took me until several years after graduation to get all of it off. That’s actually why I went into nutrition–I saw an RD during college, and that’s how I learned about balancing the starch with the other food groups I was ignoring. It still took me awhile to incorporate that knowledge into my life and shed the weight, but it was eye-opening. Thanks for your comment!

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Jennifer Lane November 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

The Freshman 15 was myth for me. I was more along the lines of what the study showed–maybe a gain of about 2-3 lbs. Mind you, I was training 4 hours a day for swimming (but I had done that in high school too). I suspect for some female college students that their bodies becoming more womanly and naturally gaining some fat to prepare for childbirth is responsible for the changes in weight and/or shape, but I’m with you that beer or unbalanced eating (hello, mega carbs!) might have a lot to do with it too.

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 9:35 pm

That’s interesting, Jen. Training four hours a day! I could’ve used some of that to balance out the mega carbs. I think for all of us, athletes and non-athletes alike, simply learning how to navigate making those food choices is difficult. We should do a Nutrition 101 for all incoming Freshman! Sample lesson: See this bagel? It has 600 calories!

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Lisa November 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm

For me, it was the “Sophomore 20.” And the “Junior Borderline Eating Disorder/Slim-Fast Plan” to lose it. Not my finest years.

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Lisa, yes, I think we were all trying to figure things out back then–how to eat, how to balance it all, how to handle our more “adult woman” figures. And now we’re trying to figure out our “post baby” figures. Does it ever end? :)

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Dan November 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm

For me it was the Sophomore 20. We moved off campus and lived directly above a Papa John’s pizzeria! Amazing it was only 20lb.

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Dan, that is too funny! The amount of pizza and bread sticks that I ate in those four years is staggering.

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Elizabeth Ann November 10, 2011 at 4:31 pm

I’ve always thought the “Freshman 15″ to be a myth. I have a feeling it existed at some point, but with the efforts made at my university (Texas A&M) and others around the United States to improve recreational centers, gyms, pools, and intramural facilities, there is no excuse to gain a tummy tire. Sure, the vast choices of new and exciting food (Chick-fil-A, sushi, all night pasta bars, and the perfectly made “Sbisa Pepperoni Rolls” at Texas A&M) might cause a few kids to pack on the pounds, but I applaud universities for encouraging students to be fit and active while providing them with healthier meal choices.

While I dodged the “Freshman 15″ (I actually lost 5 pounds of muscle after being a competitive track athlete), I’d like someone to do a study on the weight gained by “Newly Married, New to the Workforce, 20-somethings” who despite running marathons are packing on the pounds….

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Liz–I think you’re right that colleges and universities have come a long way as far as healthy eating and fitness goes. Our dining hall was Starch City. And our fitness center was small and crowded–and that was a giant state university. I know they’ve done research showing people gain weight after getting married–and joining the workforce certainly changes your schedule and time availability. Thanks so much for your comment!

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Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD November 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm

You came home with an extra chin. Me: An extra ass! My mother, who was never one to comment on my weight struggles said, “Oh, aren’t those jeans a little tight?” Yeah, like WAY too tight!

Also, LOVE this one:

If you’re going to drink way too many beers, do not go back to your dorm room at 3 am and order a pizza and side of cheesy bread.

I’m still chuckling!

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Sally November 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Oh Liz, my jeans were too tight too–and hideous black Guess jeans at that. Though it was also the era of sweaters down to your knees, so my ass was mostly covered! I have to say, my parents never said ANYTHING about the weight gain, which was such a blessing. But when I told my mom I wanted to see an RD to help me lose the weight, she was totally supportive. Thanks for reading!

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Diana November 10, 2011 at 11:08 pm

No, but I went to OU and I walked everywhere, in fact didn’t own a car until I had a job after college. My son lost weight when he went away to college too, but my daughter may have gained a little. She goes to a smaller private college with a lot less acreage.

What I did notice when my kids came home from college. They’d walk to the fridge, open the door, look around close the door and walk away. Turns out my fridge doesn’t contain any of the pre made sandwiches that they have in the cafeterias. You have to assemble it all yourself and it may not be worth the effort. Plus, we didn’t keep a lot of junk food around which was disappointing.

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Sally November 11, 2011 at 9:20 am

I walked a lot too–but obviously, not enough to balance out the awful food I was eating! That’s funny how your kids got used to pre-made stuff, I’m sure that’s very true for so many college students. Thanks for your comment!

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Jen Vito November 11, 2011 at 10:12 am

Thanks for the smiles this article gave me! Brought back so many happy memories of our shared college experience! Definitely 15 pounds here–I blame it all on the bagels!! And I distinctly remember Alicia saying to me, as I poured Grapenuts on top of my soft-serve ice cream, “you realize those are very calorically dense”! We knew but just didn’t seem to care. On a positive note, it makes our 40 year old bodies much more fabulous than our 20 year old bodies! :)

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Sally November 11, 2011 at 10:16 am

Yes Jen, I totally remember Alicia telling me that too–why didn’t we listen!?! I could’ve gone on and on about this: the warm chocolate-chip cookies from that frozen yogurt shop under McLanahan’s, breakfast at the Waffle Shop, the giant bags of pretzels I consumed while studying, the three (three!) donuts I ate for breakfast as a freshman, and of course all the Creamery ice cream. And I am totally with you–it is certainly nice to have a healthier weight at 40 than at 20!

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Nicole, RD November 16, 2011 at 10:16 am

I ate a LOT of waffles in college and I did gain about 15 lbs my first year. I also drank a lot, but exercised a lot…and played ice hockey. There just has to be a LOT of exercise to make up for poor dorm cafeteria food choices and all the parties!

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Kelly Lester (EasyLunchboxes) November 17, 2011 at 6:06 pm

I just visited my daughter across the country in her second year of college. She has managed to lose weight by moving out of the dorms and buying/prepping her own food and by doing a lot of walking. But while I was there, she pointed out a friend and quietly said, “mom- you know the Freshman 15? My friend has the freshman 50″. So sad! It’s really hard to stay away from all the addictive and fattening foods that they are around, especially with unlimited eating plans in the dorms. I’m sure that schools are offering a lot of healthy options, but it’s easy to go overboard when you’re on your own for the first time.

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Sally November 17, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Kelly–It’s interesting that it took your daughter moving OUT of the dorms to lose weight. I lived in the dorms all four years. Four years of unlimited soft-serve ice cream! Excellent point that these foods are not only fattening but also addictive and easy to overeat. So glad those days are behind me. Thanks for your comment!

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Kate Kelley November 17, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Even without beer (on a (mostly) dry campus), for me it was more like Freshman 15, Sophomore 15, etc. every year (until the last year when I realized I wasn’t going to graduate OR get my MRS degree. Then it was the Second Time Senior -25 ). For the five years I was a student there and subsequent two years I was employed there, Geneva College’s cafeteria was totally not outsourced or whatever you say to mean “home-made real food everyday. ” This included fresh made-on-site cake donuts every morning! These I would slice and fill with peanut butter to make them seem like a reasonable meal when eaten in groups of three or more. That and the unlimited soft-serve ice-cream topped with a cup of granola for midnight snack. And mid-day snack of bagels in the Student Center served dripping with real butter and a 2×4 slab of cream cheese a half inch thick.

How fondly I think back on those days when I had some sort of excuse, however flimsy, for my flab.

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Sally November 17, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Kate–that is too funny, especially “to make them seem like a reasonable meal when eaten in groups of three or more”! I remember writing in my little college planner “Chocolate chip donut day” on the days the cafeteria had these vanilla frosted donuts with chocolate chips. I would eat two and then take one back to my dorm room. What was I thinking?!? No wonder I had to start pinning my pants come December of my Freshman year!

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KH November 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I wasn’t really overweight when I started but I actually lost 10-15 freshman year. I was scared of the cafeteria food so I ate the salad bar for lunch and dinner just about every day. Then my sophomore year, I lived off campus with a roommate and things weren’t going so well. I was eating even less due to stress and dropped another 10 lbs or so. I found a picture of my 19 year old self awhile back and honestly didn’t even recognize myself at first.

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Sally November 20, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Thanks for your comment and for bringing up the other end of the spectrum. I certainly remember women in the dining hall eating only lettuce from the salad bar. It’s definitely a difficult time and a confusing time, figuring out how to make healthy choices on your own without your family around and managing body weight under a lot of stress and pressure. It’s nice to be past all of that, and I’m sure you agree!

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