The "freshman 15" has gone on a diet! Or, more likely, the poor poundage was never as significant as we thought. USA Today reports that the average freshman weight gain is more like eight pounds -- and though the gain is mostly discussed in terms of its effect on young women, both sexes tend to put on weight in the first year away from home. An analysis of weight gain among students at Purdue and Brown universities found that male and female Purdue students gained around 7.8 pounds over the course of the first year, with most of the gain happening in the first semester; male Brown students gained an average of 5.6 pounds, with Brown's female students gaining an average of 3.6 pounds. (USA Today doesn't note the difference, but the numbers seem to suggest that average weight gain may vary from campus to campus.) The culprits are pretty much a no-brainer -- plentiful but not terribly healthful dining-hall food and late-night drinking and snacking.
But although the phenomenon has been downsized, USA Today reports that students still fear the freshman 15. Writer Nanci Hellmich follows the "freshman eight" findings with the ominous note: "But students can feel the gain without looking at studies. Allie Lewin, 18, a freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, hasn't stepped on the scales recently, but she's afraid that she has gained about 5 pounds during her first two months at college." Lewin likely knows her own body and its fluctuations, but it's still interesting to see the mythologized college weight gain presented as a looming danger that could strike at any time. The prospect of plumping up during freshman year starts to seem like a rite of passage when students are imagining its arrival, comparing its effects on their peers and plotting its demise. (And plot its demise they do -- 18-year-old Eunice Eun told Hellmich she shed her freshman 15 with the aid of vegetables and exercise, while Lewin planned more gym time and less snacking. And the article features a photo of an unnamed young woman choosing foods at a salad bar "in an effort to ward off the 'Freshman 15.'")
Nutritionists say college eating habits can set the trend for later life and that students often don't bounce back from even modest weight gain, so it's important to be vigilant during university years and develop a close relationship with the salad bar. This is useful advice. But the college weight gain, like pregnancy-related weight gain, is also an easy target because it's fairly predictable. Being vigilant about one's health and friendly with the vegetables is important all the time; college-age weight gain is just easier to isolate than the 10 pounds accumulated via vending-machine food at a boring office job or weight gained in graduate school or following the breakup of a relationship. Students surely benefit from advice on exercise and nutrition, but a little more tolerance for the excess and experimentation of the college years wouldn't be a bad thing -- especially when the infamous "freshman 15" just lost seven pounds.