Freshman 15: More myth than fact

By Maaya Arbaji

In the cafeteria at John Carroll University, students choose their own meals. Fried food, pasta, burgers and pizza were what most people preferred to eat on a recent Wednesday evening. People’s faces turned bright when they saw their favorite, orange chicken, being served. Big, wide smiles were drawn on the students’ faces and enthusiastic voices filled the cafeteria when unhealthy, greasy meals were being served. However, if their particular meal was not being offered that day, angry, frustrated voices arose. One March evening, a freshman girl got really upset when her preferred pasta was not on the cafeteria menu. Her face was full of sadness and disappointment. Many chose to get sugary carbonated beverages rather than water with their meals. Also, students’ choices included adding cheese and calorie-laden dressings like ranch on their salads.

All these instances show that students’ unhealthy eating styles could be the reason for the legend of the “Freshman 15” — a term used to describe the pounds a typical student usually gains their first year of college. A lot of students are afraid of gaining the typical Freshman 15. Sometimes, students are even aware, before they go to college, of the potential for weight gain in their first year. However, the Freshman 15 is not necessarily real.

“My teachers in high school often warned us about the Freshman 15. Typically students would go to college without playing sports and eventually gain weight,” said John Carroll Junior Jon Ward. “I have never been comfortable with my body weight so I worked my hardest to avoid the Freshman 15 with exercise and healthy eating, of course minus donut day in the cafeteria.”

Junior JessicaLynn Hargett added, “I have indeed heard of the Freshman 15 and honestly, this just motivated me to work out.”

How did the myth of the Freshman 15 begin? It seems to have started as the “Freshman 10.” A New York Times article on April 5, 1981, by Matthew L. Wald, mentioned that actress Jodie Foster, who was a freshman at Yale University, had gained some weight, and referred to the Freshman 10.

The Freshman 15 seems to have been first mentioned in an article by Melbourne Hovell and a team of researchers, published in 1985 in the journal Addictive Behaviors. In popular media, Freshman 15 was used in a headline on the cover of Seventeen magazine in 1989, which may have been a first. Back in those days, a major purpose of women’s magazines was to exhort women to lose weight, according to the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Furthermore, these articles were often designed to make women feel dissatisfied with their bodies and fearful of gaining weight according to The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

Almost all of the academic articles about Freshman 15 indicate that the idea is a myth rather than a valid theory. An article by Graham and Jones that was published in 2002 says the average number of pounds women gained during their first year of college averaged 7. However, this article also points out that the inaccurate cultural norms that every college student drinks alcohol prompted college students to consume alcohol excessively. Alcohol consumption plays a significant role in students’ weight gain.

The idea of the Freshman 15 has affected students’ thoughts about weight, forming a very negative view of body image, according to an article by M. A. Graham and A. L. Jones, published in 2002 in the Journal of American College Health. In other words, this meant that students who were concerned about gaining 15 pounds ended up the ones who overestimated their weight during their first year of college.

“Freshman 15 does not always exist and it does not always have to happen. I think people should be careful about their portion size, making sure they get a sufficient amount of exercise,” said John Carroll nutritionist “Keeping a food diary will help the student to see how much s/he is really eating and expending energy.”

Another big factor that predicts student’s gaining weight from their senior year of high school to their first year of college is their relationships with their parents. An article by Jill Holm-Denoma and a team of researchers in 2008 in the journal Health Psychology focused on the idea that men’s and women’s weight was affected differently by their relationships with their parents. Strictly speaking, men who mentioned being unhappy and dissatisfied with their relationships with their parents often ended up gaining weight during the transition from high school to college. However, women reported completely different results. Women who had bad relationships with their parents were more likely to follow restrictive diets and lose significant weight—the opposite of what men experienced. However, women with good relationships with their parents experienced significant weight gain between their senior year of high school and freshman year of college.

Weight change can also be affected by peer influences. The 2011 article “Peer effects and the Freshman 15: Evidence from a natural experiment” by Olga Yakusheva and a team of researchers, talks about how humans tend to shape each other’s eating habits, exercise patterns and possibly, peer behaviors. People’s weight tends to be affected not only by their peers’ weight, but possibly by their peers’ cultural norms, backgrounds and traditions. Evidence that supports peer effects is the fact that most people tend to marry others who are similar to them in body shape, weight and lifestyles.

Weight can also be affected by shared geography. For example, people who live in the same town or geographic area tend to eat in the same restaurants, exercise in the same gyms and shop at similar grocery stores, all of which can influence their body weight independently from their peer influence, according to the 2011 article by Yakusheva and colleagues.

In the end, it seems clear from the research that the Freshman 15 is more myth than fact. Weight gain definitely does exist throughout college and can be caused by various things, such as relationships with parents, peer pressure and even geographical dimensions. Freshman 15 and weight gain can also vary based on the diet and eating choices, the amount of exercise done and the unique body of every individual. Therefore, there is really no set of rules and steps that someone should follow in order to prevent Freshman 15 and weight gain. It mostly depends on your eating habits and how often you exercise.

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