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For many new university students, heading off to college means figuring out how to balance studies, work, a social life and living alone all at the same time. Adapting to college life is even more challenging when faced with the threat of the so-called Freshman 15, a term for the weight college freshmen supposedly gain during their first year away from home.

Is the Freshman 15 real, or just a cultural myth? Read on to learn how this term became commonplace and what students can do to maintain a healthy lifestyle freshman year and beyond.

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The Answer/Debate

Let’s begin with a bit of a bombshell: The Freshman 15 isn’t a legitimate, scientific phrase. Seventeen Magazine

introduced the term
on its August 1989 cover with the all-caps subhead


Since then, the expression has gained popularity and credence throughout pop culture

is it a real phenomenon

Recent studies suggest that while
college students
(both male and female) do gain weight during their
first year at school
, it’s more to the tune of
five pounds rather than fifteen
. A recent Ohio State University study that included data from
7,418 young people
over the course of their college years found that women and men, on average,
gained around three pounds
during freshman year. Less than ten percent of the freshmen gained 15 pounds (or more), and a full quarter of the students actuallylost weight in their first year.

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the study
also found that on average, students
slowly gained weight
while at college. For women, the difference between first day of school and graduation was between seven and nine pounds; for men, it was between 12 and 13 pounds. Overall, the only consistent cause and effect relationship was between boozing and weight:
Students who drank heavily
(quaffing six or more drinks at least four days each month) were about a pound heftier than their tee-totaling friends.

Other studies reinforce the message that while young people do tend to gain weight during their college years, it
doesn’t happen overnight
(or even over one year). In fact, it might not have to do with
attending a university
in the first place — the Ohio State University study found that students were (on average) just a half-pound heavier than their non-collegiate peers. According to the researchers, this may be because many 17 or 18 -year-olds are simply not at their
full adult size
(both in
height and weight
) before heading off to college. So while some weight gain might be the result of late-night nachos and keg stands, a significant part of the Freshman 15 can be attributed to
plain old-fashioned growth

Why It Matters

Type Freshman 15 into any search engine, and a plethora of well-meaning advice articles will pop up. Common tips include

eating well-balanced meals
(and avoiding the all-you-can-eat dessert buffet table) in the cafeteria, getting plenty of
and sleep, and keeping
alcohol consumption
(and the late-night munchies that often go along with it) under control. But are these warnings and
handy tips
even helpful?

The hype and
anxiety related to weight
and eating habits at college can sometimes have a
negative effect
, making otherwise healthy young adults obsess over food and exercise. And the
fear of weight gain
and body dissatisfaction are potential triggers for
eating disorders
, especially among
. While it’s important to teach young people how to take care of themselves in a healthy way,
scary magazine articles
that tout the inevitability of first-year weight gain don’t help anyone.

The Takeaway

Although the Freshman 15 is a myth (for most), college students are still prone to gain a few pounds en route to their diplomas. Instead of fostering fear of weight gain, perhaps

universities should rethink
how they approach health and nutrition. Since many young people live independently for the first time when they go off to college, those four years can be an ideal time for individuals to explore which eating and exercise habits make them feel healthiest and happiest. By teaching students how to develop balanced habits for life, colleges and universities can equip young adults with the knowledge to live healthfully in school and beyond.

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