Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes
FORT WORTH, Texas - Yolanda Davis heard about the dreaded phenomenon before heading off to New Orleans for her freshman year at Xavier University and wanted no part of it. Wendy Moses had likewise heard the tales before settling in as a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta but never imagined it would happen to her.
The two Fort Worth, Texas, women found themselves face to face with the so-called Freshman 15, the alleged propensity of students to put on up to 15 pounds when they first go off to college. Whether established fact or national folklore remains an open question, but for many of the roughly 1.5 million young people who enter college each fall, the Freshman 15 becomes a living, breathing reality.
As a scientifically proven phenomenon, the Freshman 15 has taken its lumps in recent years.
It depends on the school and individual," said Kelly Simonson, a licensed psychologist at the counseling center at Texas Woman's University in Denton.An equal number of people lose weight."
According to Simonson, a school's culture can be a factor in whether students will gain weight.
"At TWU, you'll see every size and shape of woman on the planet," she said. "But at a place like Southern Methodist University in Dallas, there are more social pressures to be thin."
Jeanne Goldberg, a professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, said, "It's a catchphrase - nice alliteration. But it's not true."
Goldberg said she looked at the issue 15 years ago and found that freshmen did gain a few pounds. At the end of four years, however, those same students had lost weight and weighed roughly the same as when they started college.
More recently, researchers at Tufts conducted another study. They found that freshmen women gained an average of 4 pounds their first year in school, while freshmen men gained an average of 6.
"The reason I'm concerned about the 4 pounds of weight for women is that, in the context of the national obesity epidemic, will they lose those 4 pounds or will it be a trajectory?" Goldberg said. She added that researchers will continue to follow up to track the weight of study subjects. Tufts recently sent out its first alumni weight survey.
Whether it is 4, 6 or 15 pounds, people on college campuses say it is not uncommon for some students to gain considerable weight during their first year. Reggie Bond, executive director of the Health and Wellness Center at the University of North Texas in Denton, said he has heard about the fabled Freshman 15 since he first entered the college environment. However, he said he doubts that it happens to most students.
"You do have a few students who gain a lot of weight," he said. "But this does not seem to be true for a majority of students."
Benita Jacobs, vice president of student development at UNT, concurs.
"We joke about it a lot, and, anecdotally, you see a lot of kids who put on weight because they eat more and they eat differently than they did at home," she said. "If I had to guess, I'd say a number of students do put on weight after they first go to college. But whether it is as many as in the past, I doubt it because people are so much more health-conscious today."
Davis, now a sophomore at Xavier, said she heard about the Freshman 15 before she ever set foot on campus. But instead of gaining weight, she dropped a few pounds.
"Almost all my friends gained weight," she said. `When we would be up late studying, they would order food or we would go out late and eat. But I wouldn't buy the snack food, so I wouldn't eat it."
Davis attributes her discipline to one simple factor: "I didn't want to have to buy new clothes."
Moses said her weight gain, which she pegged at 15 to 18 pounds, was attributable to a variety of factors. Among other things, she had to take medication that fosters weight gain. In addition, her diet changed significantly. She said that on the evening of her first day at her Emory residence hall, the women on her floor decided to order chicken wings.
"We all ate pounds of wings," she recalled. "That was my first day there, and the message was, `This is college food.' "
She found that as she stayed up into the wee hours of the morning studying, she would get hungry.
"You're up at 2 a.m., and you get hungry for another meal," said Moses, now a sophomore. "And the only things open are places that sell wings and pizza."
Michael Roger, a senior at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he is a firm believer in the Freshman 15. He went to UTA after serving in the Army and weighed 155 pounds. He now weighs 187. He said he stopped working out for a while and his diet became less healthy.
"Our problem is pizza three times a week, and beer four times a week," he joked.
Monica Kintigh, a licensed professional counselor with mental health services at Fort Worth's Texas Christian University, said a constellation of factors contribute to freshman weight gain.
"It's a transition time," she said. `It's not just the stress of college. Now, for the first time, they have to do their own laundry and get their own meals."
In addition, some students fret about the financial burden their schooling places on their families. Others worry about their social lives, wondering who their new friends will be and how they will fit in on campus. Such radical changes can lead some students to feel blue.
"When we feel bad, we go for comfort foods," Kintigh said, foods often laden with fat and calories.
Food at college residence halls also has been fingered as a culprit in freshman weight gain. However, colleges and universities have become increasingly sophisticated in the fare they offer.
"Now there is such a variety of food offered at each of the residence halls," said UNT's Bond, ranging from sub sandwiches to vegetarian dishes.
Rick Flores, general manager of dining services at TCU, said he feels it is important for colleges to offer a variety of food options to students. Consequently, TCU has a cornucopia of food choices, ranging from fast-food items to an extensive salad bar. This school year, the university is opening The Main Grain, which has a vegan format that Flores said is "geared to students who have more selective tastes. A growing population is heading to that, and that is more of a challenge for us."
Simonson of TWU added that freshmen often find that they are, for the first time, making their own food choices.
"No one is there to tell them to eat their broccoli," she said.
"We may have a great salad bar and made-to-order pasta, but there will always be a line out the door for chicken strips, hamburgers and french fries," he said. "The Freshman 15 can become the Sophomore 30 and so on."
Counselors and nutrition experts caution that, while college weight gain can be a problem, a number of people develop serious eating disorders as they attempt to avoid gaining weight.
"Some people are so afraid of gaining the Freshman 15 that they become bulimic or anorexic," said Kintigh of TCU.
Bulimics follow periods of excessive overeating with self-induced vomiting, while anorexia is an obsession with losing weight by refusing to eat. The numbers can be staggering. Simonson said that up to 20 percent of all women on college campuses exhibit some sort of eating-disorder behavior.
Goldberg, the Tufts professor, said bulimia is the most common eating disorder at colleges and is the more easily treatable of disorders. But that does not mean that it is not unsettling.
"What I'm concerned about is bulimia as a communicable idea on college campuses," she said. "It's not that so many people become bulimic, it's that there is a lot of imitation. Students say, `Oh, my God, I just overate and this is my weight control.' "
Whether the problem is gaining weight or losing too much, Kintigh said it is essential that students find a balance between nutrition, sleep and exercise as they navigate their way through the college experience.
"We want students to find that balance and feel good about themselves," she said. "All foods can be good foods, but they shouldn't be used as a drug."
For her part, Moses has remained philosophical about her weight gain.
"Everyone is weight-conscious, but everyone gains the Freshman 15," she said. "I gained the weight, and I know I can lose it."
COUNTING COLLEGE CALORIES
Just how many calories are lurking in those meals commonly snarfed down by hungry college students? The following calorie and fat values, posted on the fast-food and calorie page at www.chowbaby.com, offer some food for thought:
- Two slices of a large, hand-tossed pepperoni pizza from Domino's contain 614 calories and 24 grams of fat.
- One glazed yeast doughnut from Krispy Kreme packs 200 calories and 12 grams of fat.
- A grande coffee frappuccino from Starbucks has 270 calories and 4 grams of fat.
- A Big Mac from McDonald's provides a whopping 530 calories and 33 grams of fat. A super-size order of fries adds 610 calories and 29 grams of fat.
- A taco from Jack-in-the-Box contains 170 calories and 9 grams of fat
- A 6-inch Southwest steak-and-cheese sandwich from Subway provides 412 calories and 18 grams of fat.
- The Grand Slam breakfast from Denny's has 795 calories and 50 grams of fat.
FIGHT THE FAT
Counselors and nutrition experts say freshman weight gain need not be inevitable. Some do's and don'ts:
- Exercise regularly. Many schools have sophisticated recreation centers that include swimming pools, tracks, exercise equipment and fitness classes.
- Avoid snacking on fatty foods. Stock up on fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy alternatives.
- Monitor food consumption. Many school-food programs allow students unlimited portions, but the food will still be there tomorrow.
- Seek out nutrition counselors and personal trainers.
- Limit alcohol intake.
- Get enough sleep.
These common-sense tips can go a long way toward avoiding the "Freshman 15." Amy Goodson, wellness coordinator at the Texas Christian University recreation center, said keeping the weight off is "a combination of healthy living and healthy choices." Many students, fall into a trap of staying up late, snacking and drinking alcohol, which "really adds the pounds," she said.
(c) 2003, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.