Monday, October 31, 2011

Beware the Freshman 15?


I have this theory that the Freshman 15 applies to every time you enter college. My theory is all about cumulative weight gain as it relates to college attendance and employment, and so far I've only tested it on myself. I'm wondering if my experiment (I'm gonna call it that since it sounds better than the excuses I made to skip going to the gym), and my n=1, are correct.

A new study published in Social Science Quarterly describes the weight change observed by new college students. In case you haven't heard of the publicized, and horrifying, phenomenon that is the Freshman 15 then know that it describes the notion that students tend to gain a substantial amount of weight, about 15 pounds, during their first year at college. Considering the lack of parental supervision, all the free food (particularly ice cream and pizza...oh, and beer, don't forget all the beer) that abounds on college campuses, how poor college students are, the increased stress levels, the lack of sleep coupled with odd eating/snacking hours, andthe  overall decrease in physical activity I can see where that notion stems from. The authors of this paper start by looking at things from a public health perspective, if the Freshman 15 is actually real then efforts should be made to encourage healthy lifestyle habits and prevent obesity in this age group. If it is a media myth then all this encouragement will prove ineffective, cause unnecessary worry, and worsen body image which could actually lead to weight gain. But we'll get back to that later. First, is there actually literature on this topic? Actually, yes. Previous studies, 20 of them to be exact, have looked at weight change among college freshman. Early analyses, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, focused on women and many found that they gain weight. And you can thank Seventeen Magazine for coining the term "Freshman 15" in 1989. About half of the more recent studies include men, but those studies still include more women than men. Seeing a trend here yet? You add up all of the studies and you will see that freshman do in fact gain weight, although not nearly 15 pounds. Usually they average around four.

Those previous studies had a couple of major flaws. I've pointed out the mostly women thing, but they also were largely conducted on small campuses and included nonrandom samples. This new study attempts to solve those problems by using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97) which allows them a large, nationally representative, random sample of college freshmen, and they can compare freshman to similarly aged noncollege students. They tracked mean and median weight changes, ran multivariate regressions that adjust for each individual's weight gain according to specific factors (age, gender, etc), ran simulations to estimate the difference in weight gain between college and noncollege students, and then conducted a longitudinal analysis to track weight change during and after college.

After all of that the authors conclude that the Freshman 15 is a media myth. Freshman do indeed gain weight but on average only about 3 pounds. Additionally, college students were found to only gain half a pound more than noncollege students. The authors suggest that this media myth is perpetuated by the use of the catchy "the Freshman 15" phrase, and that it contributes to the misperception of being overweight, especially for women. Thanks for that 1980's studies and media jerks. They also suggest that the transition to college is not a critical point in terms of weight gain, that weight gain doesn't happen all in the freshman year but gradually over a longer period of time. That being said and returning to the public health perspective from above, they recommend that media and campus reports frame articles and information with a healthy living theme, including fitness tips and debunking myths. They also point out that college is a good place to teach young adults about proper nutrition, healthy cooking, and fitness. Now for the "we'll get back to that later" part, I'm not sure how this healthy lifestyle encouragement fits in with the statement that such information will prove ineffective, cause unnecessary worry, and worsen body image which could actually lead to weight gain, as they stated earlier in their paper. They don't really expand on whether it is the use of the term "Freshman 15" or whether using it in conjunction with healthy lifestyle encouragement or if just the healthy lifestyle encouragement itself is the worrying part for people. My waistline and I would be very interested to know. In general, I say living healthier is healthier for someone. But, hey, what do I know?

So I suppose my theory doesn't really have all that much scientific evidence. Ah, well, tis the nature of science.

Here's the paper:
Zagorsky, Jay L. and Patricia K. Smith (2011) The Freshman 15: A critical time for obesity intervention or media myth? Social Science Quarterly: 92(5), 1389-1407. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00823.x)
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