Weight Gain in College– does it only affect Freshmen?

by Sheela Doraiswamy on October 15, 2012

image from freedigitalphotos.net

Everyone who’s currently in or has been to college has heard of the “Freshman 15,” the supposed 15 pounds students will gain during their freshman year of college. Well, good and bad news. The good news is, the Freshman 15 is a myth. Studies have looked at weight gain during the first year of college, and found that most students had no significant weight change by the end of their freshman year. Those students who had gained weight only gained about 5 pounds on average.

So now for the bad news: Sure, you’re unlikely to gain 15 pounds during freshman year of college, but a new study has found that weight gain may continue throughout your four years as a college student.

Previous studies have only looked at student weight gain during the first year of college. A study conducted at Auburn University decided to look at changes in weight and body composition (meaning where fat accumulates, such as the waist, hips, etc) at the beginning of Freshman year vs the end of Senior year. 240 freshmen were recruited at the start of their Fall semester. Researchers recorded their weight, height, BMI, and the circumferences of the neck, waist, hips, and chest. Four years later, these students were again recruited (only 131 of them returned due to various reasons), and these measurements were taken again.

At the end of Senior year, 70% of these participants had gained weight, averaging about 6.7 lbs. At the start of this study, only about 18% of participants had a BMIs that were considered overweight or obese, where as 31% were considered overweight by the end of Senior year. Researchers also found significant increases in the circumferences of the neck, waist, and hips. All of these increases were much greater among males than among females.


From the results of this study, weight gain is not only a problem for freshmen, it remains a concern throughout the four years of college. In other words, we need to get away from the idea of “Freshmen 15” and look at it more like a “College 11” (if you can come up with a catchy alliteration for this, let me know).

As for why this weight gain happens and what can be done to fix it, you’ll just have to wait for another blog post.

Jennifer October 15, 2012 at 5:57 pm

this study basically just reinforces the study that shows most people gain a few pounds each year throughout adulthood, but frames it in a way that perpetuates obesity panic and hysteria.

it’s a good summary of the study, but i find these types of studies to be more about aesthetics than about usefulness. digging a little deeper, evidence shows that weight gain in and of itself, especially such a small percentage over a long period of time, is not killing anyone. removing weight from the equation, and focusing on any unhealthy eating, drinking, or exercise habits generated and perpetuated by the college lifestyle would be a far more useful study to share, in my opinion. this focus on body size doesn’t do thin college students any favors, since it encourages them to believe as long as they stay thin and don’t get fat, they don’t have to worry about the TRUE objective measures of health and can continue drinking heavily, eating poorly, and getting too little sleep.

Sheela Doraiswamy October 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm

hi Jennifer. Something from the original study I probably shouldn’t have cut out (I admit I wrote this article in a bit of a hurry), is that they compared the weight gain in this group with the predicted weight gain based on CDC estimates for this age group (and their corresponding heights), and found that they did gain more than predicted, so take that as you will, I suppose.

I definitely agree that there are better measures of health than just weight and BMI, but I also imagine that it’s tough to measure things such as healthy eating for a large group like this. I do hope to talk a little more about things such as healthy eating and drinking in the future. I know from experience that it’s really tough to eat healthy when you’re stuck with college food options.

Jennifer October 16, 2012 at 2:43 pm

The fact that we’re using BMI as an indicator of health because it’s easier than compiling all the TRUE indicators of health is very bad science. BMI is somewhat useful for getting a picture of the overall size of a population of people, but not at all useful for arguing that college students need to decrease their weight or be fearful of gaining it. Given that more studies are coming out to show how it’s most certainly possible to gain (a small amount of) weight (consistent with what we already know about our biology) and still maintain our fitness and health, it’s hard for me to find a lot of meaning or usefulness in this post, especially with associating body size with words like “concern” and “problem.”

What I’m trying to say is that if the ruler used to measure something is inaccurate, how can we know we’re sharing valid data?

Sheela Doraiswamy October 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm

that is definitely a good point, and I hope it’s something that researchers try and improve. Unfortunately for now, I think BMI, weight, waist size, etc, may be the best indicators we have available.

Thanks a lot for your comments, though. I’ll try and make sure my follow up post on possible reasons for weight gain focuses a little more on the unhealthy aspects themselves rather than portraying weight gain itself as the problem (That was not really my intention with this post, but I can see how it may be perceived that way)

Tim Jones October 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Feel like I’m waiting for the ‘next exciting episode’ now. But tend to agree with the other commenter; the conclusions aren’t helpful without even some vague discussion of cause.

I also wonder if this is a US, UK, European, Global thing, or what? Based on only my unreliable anecdotal observations, the main thing UK students do in the standard 18-21 slot is drink more alcohol and eat more unhealthy, high fat, take-aways (carry-outs?). That said, I stayed thin my first two years and suddenly swelled out in the third; and never figured out why, suggesting there’s some metabolic discontinuity kicking in?

Their next study might examine the myth that folk (men in particular?) instantly fill out on getting married; which I’ve heard put down to anything from relaxing ‘display’ standards after mate acquisition, to a ‘killing with love’ meal regime (although that seems to fit better with a mid-20th century stereotype of marriage roles – hopefully now defunct).

Lindsay Miller October 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Although many college students do not wait until they are 21 to drink, I did…well, for the most part. So I gained the most weight during my senior year once I started going to the bar more frequently. I have also heard that women (not sure about men) gain weight after being in a relationship for a while, and I imagine college is a time when many are going into/out of relationships!

I look forward to reading about the “why” in another post!

Elizabeth Fryer October 15, 2012 at 10:23 pm

I wonder if the 18% with BMIs indicating they were overweight their freshman year were among the 31% their senior year. When I was a freshman, BMI hadn’t been developed, but body-fat checking had. A measurement was taken from a couple places on my body and I was found to be obese! The fellow taking the meaurements said the method was rough, kind of poo-pooed the determination. I looked *healthy*, not obese, not even fat. I looked althelic, even though I wasn’t.

I took the result seriously and started a workout plan right then. I was healthier as a senior than as a freshman.

Sheela, your challenge to come up with a catchy phrase for the “college 11” has me thinking. I’ll check next week to see if someone submitted a suggestion you liked.

Sheela Doraiswamy October 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm

hey everyone. I just found out my article was featured on Jezebel in a not-so-good light, so I just thought I’d take a precautionary measure and add this—
If you read said article and are here to comment, PLEASE keep in mind that I’m a student, and the purpose of this blog is for me to learn proper communication. I tried my best to only convey what’s in the original study. If you feel that I did so in an offensive way, I apologize.
Again, the purpose of this blog is for us all to learn proper communication, so if you believe that I could have said things in a nicer way, let me know and I’ll keep it in mind for future posts.

Margaret October 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Though, I did not like the topic for this article, I did try to look at this in a more objective point of view. In reading your background article the people who gained wait had “increases in neck, chest-bust, waist, hips, seat, and biceps circumferences were also observed in this weight gain group”.
Don’t men finish their development of shoulders in the first couple years of college? Would this explain why they might have more neck, bicep circumferences?
Also, women tend to finish developing and start developing hips in the same time period.

Thank you for the article,

Sheela Doraiswamy October 16, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Hi Margaret, thanks for your feedback. As I mentioned to Jennifer above, the article also mentions that the increases they found in the group studied were greater than the predicted weight gains from the CDC. I feel a little silly for leaving that out of the post– but I believe the article says that for men at least, the numbers were significantly higher than what the predicted natural growth would be.

Margaret October 16, 2012 at 8:18 pm

I noticed the CDC siting in the article. I like to read all of the background material in your posts, because I have a math background. I like to check the statistical conclusions. It says,3.6 kg and 1 cm for males in ages 18-20. Though it does not say what the expected for 17-22 which is more accurate to their own study of 4 years. Also, it says that the women were in the expected amount.

Do you think that because the study was done in Alabama where there are a lot more fried food options and less fresh food options might have had a factor on it as well?


Sheela Doraiswamy October 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

I think the food options would definitely play a role, and I think the study should have mentioned whether this was a cause for concern, as the above commenter suggested, not just for weight, but for nutrition in general (which is really the more important issue). I really want to try a follow up article looking at food options available on campuses if I can find enough research on the subject.

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