The first year of college or university life can be very difficult for students. With many out on their own for the first time, and now largely void of parental guidance, it becomes an important time to learn and make truly independent choices. With all of these new experiences and options comes the opportunity to make very important choices. It is often stated that choices regarding diet and exercise are some of the most important long-term decisions that students make during their first years. Studies have shown that the choices we make regarding our health can be incredibly significant to the rest of our lives. With one in six children and teenagers facing dangerous levels of obesity every year, the choices we make regarding diet and excursive have serious long reaching consequences. However, perhaps one of the most commonly discussed myths with nutrition is that of the “Freshman 15”; the idea that freshman college students gain an average of ten to fifteen pounds throughout their first year in college. In the following study, I argue that the “Freshman 15” is a real phenomenon and is a product of many factors of college life and eating habits in general. Based on various survey and documented information, I will demonstrate the Freshman 15 is a product of various circumstances and often unhealthy choices that students create. In order to test this theory, students will be interviewed and meals will be examined as to the quality of their nutrition. In the end, this information will conclude the various ways that eating disorders can affect college students and what some of the major causes and ideas behind them may be. Daphne Oz, a writer for People magazine, writes that, “The problems which lead to weight gain include open buffets in cafeterias, unhealthy eating during late-night study sessions, and overly rigid dieting” (2006).
While college may be time that is easy to mark with the increased weight gain of many students, it is very important to face that fact that obesity has become a national trend. Studies done by the United States Center for Disease Prevention and control have noted an alarming increase in rates of obesity from 1991 to 1998. In fact, in those few years, the percentage of those who are more than thirty percent over normal body weight jumped from roughly twelve percent to almost eighteen percent (Veena, 2000). It is a proven fact that much of the weight gain we experience in life falls between the 18 to 29 ranges, accounting for the entire four years of college. Throughout life, a wide variety of influences exist that can affect our health and eating habits. However, certain factors, such as being homesick and high levels of anxiety and stress, are often greatly multiplied in freshman college students, contributing to another factor of possible weight gain (Browder, 2001). College, more than many other times in life, offers an almost unlimited opportunity to over eat. Most campuses offer all-you-can-eat buffet style meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, combine this with the idea that many types of food, some previously forbidden to certain students, is now available in unlimited quantities and it is easy to see the possibly correlations between college and weight gain (Svec, 2005).
It is also very important to remember the role that food can take in college social interaction. Writer Veena Thomas describes the scene as college students were in a line for food: “I started contemplating this after attending the recent Class of 2002 Ring Delivery. Following a reception (with food) at Killian Court, sophomores were bused to the harbor. Immediately after boarding the cruise ship, students found themselves in a huge crowd vaguely resembling a line. Apparently more free food lay ahead. There, all hell broke loose. Picture 800 students forming a mob in order to get to two tables of various desserts. The scene resembled a mosh pit. Any sense of order, which might have been present initially, was soon lost as everyone swarmed around the tables. Pushing and shoving ensued in a battle to reach the food faster. Some people walked off with plates loaded with goodies, as others received none. Those in the back of the crowd couldn’t reach the tables; those who had taken their share of food couldn’t find room to leave the area amidst the mob scene. People began passing trays of food from the tables to the back of the crowd in order to satisfy them, but this soon ceased as the trays broke with so many grabbing for them. It was one of the most greedy, primitive displays I’ve ever seen” (2000).
It is often thought that college in general can contribute to a condition known as “compulsive overeating” (Renfrew, 2002). Food in college can often provide an opportunity for social interaction or bonding. Meal time for many students is a crucial point for social interaction, and this can also lead to dangerous amounts of overeating, with some students spending more than an hour in cafeterias, leading to much larger amounts of food being consumed than would normally be thought of (Svec 2005). All of these conditions are great risk factors for the development of compulsive eating disorder. “Compulsive overeating can affect women or men, though it appears twice as often among women. People with compulsive overeating disorder suffer from episodes of uncontrolled eating or bingeing followed by periods of guilt and depression” (Renfrew, 2002).
It is very important to remember that college can create some of the main factors for developing compulsive eating disorder. The disorder can often come as a result of feeling depressed, alienated or feeling as though something is missing in ones life (Compulsive Eating Disorder). It is worth noting that many first time college students experience many feelings such as this during their first weeks and months away from home. “Many people eat when they are under stress and freshman year can be a particularly stressful time. Simply changing from one environment to another can be difficult and the college environment usually is quite different from high school” (Svec, 2005).
In fact, the Freshman Fifteen has become so dangerous to the health of students that many colleges and websites attempt to offer ways for students to beat the weight gain, including many tips for healthy eating. Surely, the prevalence of the problem is made very clear by the fact that colleges attempt to fight it. “Though it is part myth, many schools recognize it by name and may take the opportunity to put up posters or hold seminars on basic nutrition with tips on how to avoid the weight gain” (Freshman fifteen). “Saint Mary’s encourages students to take advantage of a campus nutritionist, a reliable source that offers free advice about healthy and moderate eating. The nutritionist is also available one day a week at Health Services” (Browder, 2001).
However, just because the idea of the Freshman Fifteen is prevalent in the minds of many students and campus does not mean that it is necessarily true. Not every single student in college is apt to gain weight during their first year, and it is often based more an individual basis than on an average (Thomas, 2000). A study done by the University of Guelph asserts that students gain closer to five pounds or less, a far greater difference than the normal fifteen that is proposed by most sources. Also, it is important to remember that even at the age of eighteen or nineteen, students are still developing. A weight gain during this time is often suspected and can even be healthy in some cases (Compulsive Overeating). Some students are simply filling out or going through natural growth cycles. In fact, recent studies point out that the actual number of people affected by weight gain attributed to first year college and holiday experiences only affects close to twenty five percent, or one fourth of the population studied (Campbell, 2006). While this number may still be fairly significant, it points out that the weight gain is far from common to most people in the study groups. The Freshman Fifteen myth is simply not an average number for most college students. These numbers do not mean that it is not a problem, or even something not worth studying, but rather that it is not as common as it was once thought to be.
In the same way that many factors can contribute to unhealthy eating, their exist just as many solutions. Many have proposed solutions, some uncongenial, and others more common. However, their exist many ways to fight the Freshman Fifteen, such as exercising, eating healthy foods such as fruit, and avoiding late night snacks and generally unhealthy food (Oz, 2006). At the route of everything, perhaps the best way to look at the Freshman Fifteen is as a common but rarely documented phenomenon. Perhaps the closest actual study regarding the myth was performed by the Journal of American College Health, in the article entitled, “Changes in Body Weight and Fat Mass of Men and Women in the First Year of College: A Study of the “Freshman 15,” the authors write regarding their study, “Sixty-seven of the 217 students who volunteered for the health assessment agreed to undergo a second set of measurements in the spring. The mean change in body weight was 2.86 pounds (1.3 kg, SD = 4.0 kg), and the mean change in percentage of body fat was 0.7% (SD = 4.0%). For those students who gained weight only, the mean increase in body weight (as measured by body mass index, weight divided by height in kg/m?) was 6.82 pounds (3.1 ± 2.4 kg) and percentage of body fat was 0.9 ± 3.8%. The authors found that the first year of college is a period in which weight and fat gain may occur. The exact causes behind these changes are unclear and warrant further research to plan or improve intervention and prevention” (Hoffman et al, 2006).
While little research does exist, that is only a sign that definite experimentation should be done in order to further understand the Freshman Fifteen, if it does in fact occur, and what some of the factors include by studying actual college students. Their are a variety of possibilities that exist for studying the exact nature of the Freshman Fifteen and what could cause it. However, while their are many variables that exist when studying the phenomenon, perhaps one of the key factors thought to actually cause the Freshman Fifteen would be the easiest to study. The fact that many students put on the supposed fifteen pounds is thought to be induced at least in part by the increased amount of junk food that many students take in during times of high stress, such as finals or midterms. It is a common thought that students in college put in many longer night hours than do students in high school. As a result of the increased time spent working and studying at night, many have suggested that students consume a much higher amount of junk food or snacks, such as chips or other high fat foods. While this is a somewhat difficult thing to empirically test, an ideal experiment would study the levels of food that students intake during certain times of the year that relate to high stress.
However, the first part of empirically studying the Freshman Fifteen would be to send out a survey that asks students if they experienced this during their first year. Although there would be certain problems with a survey. It would still serve as a decent background for studying the myth. In order to properly send out the survey, it would be delivered to second, third and fourth year students. It would include questions relating to most health aspects, such as any time spent exercising, whether or not the student is a member of any athletic teams or participates in a large amount of activities. Other information would ask students about their eating habits both during their first year of college and in relation to what they ate before they began attending. The survey would be sent out through our college mail, to eliminate the possibility that some students would not receive it if it were to be distributed in some other way, such as in person. I would personally keep track of the results, the survey would be either sent to my actual dorm room, or sent to a mailbox. Also, the possibility of sending it out through electronic mail, as a secondary method should the first not provides enough results are also an idea.
An important part of any survey though is examining in whether or not it could offend or somehow damage the intended study group. I have careful considered this though, and do not see a lot of potential danger with those involved. There is the possibility that it could offend some students, which seems to be a very minor risk. Very little overall danger exists when it comes to simple surveys. Of course, when actually writing the survey, I would have to be very careful to avoid biasing the questions in any way, and choose very specific wording. Also, the initial survey distributed would include more open-ended questions, which are far more beneficial when studying something such as the myth as compared to close ended or multiple choice, yes and no questions.
While the initial survey would serve as a great way to get some basic information from the student body as to how they feel regarding the Freshman Fifteen and if it has personally affected any of them, a far more interesting idea would be to study the actual causes behind it. In order to understand and complete this part, I have designed a simple experiment that would measure the amount of food students intake during certain times of high stress and low stress, this would enable the study to come to a definite conclusion about whether or not at least a certain aspect of the myth is true.
In order to perform this experiment, I would invite several freshman students to a study group. This would have to be done twice. Once during a period of low stress, as for a simple homework assignment, possibly that students have a lot of time to complete, this would have to vary based on the time that the experiment was conducted, of course, in order to accommodate for individual assignments. During the experiment, students at the study group would be given a selection of both healthy and non-healthy food. For example, fruit and vegetables would be set out, as would perhaps cookies and chips or pizza. As part of the study group, the amount of type of the foods students eat would be measured. This would have to be repeated several times with several different groups of students in order to get the proper information and avoid getting a sample bias. This would be done several times during periods of low stress, and each time the results would be measured in coordination to what the students are eating and the individual assignment being studied for.
The second part of the experiment would come at a time of high stress for most students. Ideally, this would have to be organized during a finals or midterm week. Doing this then would likely extend the study session slightly. As in the control group, once again two different groups of food would be set out and the results of how much food is taken from certain groups would be measured and recorded.
Although this experiment does involve some slight damage to subjects perhaps, it would expose them to unhealthy food, it can be rationalized with the idea that it is nothing that millions of students across the country do not ordinarily participate in. Following the tests, each group would be informed that their eating habits were studied and recorded. Ideally, the results would show that students do indeed eat unhealthy food to begin with, and eat far more during periods of high stress.
Although the experiment seems to be a good idea, there are certain problems with it. In each group the students will, of course, differ, and it may be very difficult to gather the exact same group back for each individual study. Also, organizing the students in the first place might prove somewhat difficult. Problems may also arise if the students do not eat as much as was expected of them in the first place. It is very possible that some of the students involved may have just come from a meal or other period of eating. If any of these did occur though, the experiment could be repeated on different days or different times to see if the results would change. Also, students could be interviewed following the experiment to see if they have any input or have any feelings about whether or not they themselves noticed an increase in eating during certain periods of time during the academic year.
While this may seem to be a very simple experiment, the results could greatly help in various areas of study. Finding out whether or not the Freshman Fifteen does in fact exist could greatly help out with college level nutritionists as well as helping students to avoid the additional weight during their freshman year at college. Hopefully, the experiment would help us to understand what exactly brings on additional eating during college and would provide the necessary results to eventually overcoming much of the additional weight gain that is very possible during college. Also, the survey portion of the experiment would allow us to understand whether or not the Freshman Fifteen is an actual problem or just an exaggerated myth. While the Freshman Fifteen may seem like somewhat of a minor problem to some, it can set the stage for health and nutrition for the rest of student’s lives. As a result of how important it can be then, it seems only crucial and necessary that we try to understand and, in some way, help to prevent or reduce this myth that can have a potential affect on the rest of our lives.
List of References Used
Veena, T (2000, May 9). Retrieved October 23, 2006, from An Unhealthy Feeding
Frenzy Freshman 15 Only the Start of Downhill Trend Web site: http://www.tech.mit.edu/V120/N26/col26veena.26c.html
Svec, Car (2005, March 5). Weight Management. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from
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Browder, J (2001, September 10). Fighting the `Freshman 15′. Retrieved October 23,
2006, from Scene Online Observer Web site: http://www.nd.edu/~observer/09102001/Scene/1.html
(2002). Compulsive Overeating. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from The Renfrew Center Web site: http://www.renfrewcenter.com/eating-disorders-anorexia- bulimia/compulsive-overeating.asp
(2002). COMPULSIVE OVEREATING DISORDER. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from Office of health education Web site:
(2006). Freshman Fifteen. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freshman_fifteen
Campbell, P (2006). The truth: Freshman 15 and holiday 7. Retrieved October 21, 2006, from Body Building.com Web site: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/phil9.htm
Oz, D (2006, September 4). What freshman 15. People, 66(10), 59-59.
Hoffman, D, Policastro, P, Quick, V, & Soo-Kyung, L (2006). Changes in Body Weight
and Fat Mass of Men and Women in the First Year of College: A Study of the “Freshman 15.”. Journal of American College Health, 55, 41-45.