Leaving home for the first time is scary enough. But the idea that you're probably going to gain weight when you go off to college can make that first year at school even more frightening.
Here's something that may surprise you: The legendary "Freshman 15" is actually an over-exaggerated urban myth. "Headlines grab attention, and this is one example," according to Suzanne Sonneborn, a registered dietician and nutrition educator at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. It's really impossible to "generalize weight gain in this way."
Here are some surprising facts about first-year college students:
· Some weight gain is normal. Adolescence, which begins at around age 12 and doesn't end until about age 20, typically means an increase in both height and weight. When freshmen start college, they're technically still adolescents. By the time a student is a senior, however, he or she is likely to be a full-grown adult.
"Some weight gain [during these years] is part of the developmental process," says Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietician at the University of Maryland in College Park.
· It may only be the "Freshman 7." The "Freshman 15" has long been a legend among students. But multiple studies show that this level of weight gain is exaggerated.
A 2006 study by researchers at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., found that out of 67 freshmen, 18 lost weight and 49 gained — but only an average of about 7 pounds each. In another study at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 44 freshmen were studied; 16 of them lost weight, two stayed the same and 26 gained an average of about four pounds.
· You can blame the campus diet. The most obvious reason for freshman weight gain is often dining hall meals. "Even though most students say they want healthy food options, the greasy, unhealthy food is the first to sell," says Jakubczak.
Sean McKew, a senior at Loyola College in Baltimore, can attest to that. "Some college students think that making a healthy choice is to have chicken fingers instead of pizza," he says.
· Lots of freshmen get fit. Although weight gain gets all the attention, lots of students actually shed pounds during their first year. Many of them are so busy socializing and going to classes that they actually forget to eat.
Others simply don't have the opportunity to consume as much food as they used to. "It wasn't as easy to eat in between meals, which I would do constantly when I lived at home," says Max Strasser, a sophomore at Oberlin College in Ohio. "And I stopped eating breakfast because it was too much of a hassle."
· Some colleges take action. As the issue of obesity among Americans gains widespread attention, colleges are starting to focus on helping kids maintain a healthy weight. At Ohio's Kenyon College, for example, students participate in a program that offers only fresh local food in the cafeterias.
"Our initiative was repeatedly identified as a project contributing to student wellness," explains Kenyon spokesman Howard Sacks.
Many college wellness centers also offer resources for students.
At the University of New Hampshire, for instance, "we try to dispel the urban legend of the 'Freshman 15,' " says Sonneborn, "and give students strategies on how to navigate the dining halls, figure out when they're hungry, and to take care of themselves."