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Who can resist a constant stream of French fries, pizza and ice cream?
Not Gunnar Carroll, a freshman at American University in Washington.
“A burger, fries, a slice of pizza and a Coke,” are his meal of choice, says the transplanted resident of New York City's Brooklyn borough.
With piles of dining-hall food to behold and no one dictating the menu, college freshmen dig in and traditionally see a weight gain.
Or do they?
A study in the Journal of College Health a decade ago suggested that freshman weren’t gaining weight like they used to, giving hope to those studying and fighting American obesity, which in 2008, was 66.9 percent of Americans age 20 and older. Today, the percent of overweight and obese Americans has climbed to 71, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
That leaves fewer than 30 percent of Americans who were not overweight in 2016.
The study authors, Nicole L Mihalopoulos and fellow researchers, found that most freshmen among the 125 they studied did not gain seven or more kilograms, saw no change, or added only a few kilos. The greatest percentage saw no change (33 percent), gained one-half to two kilograms (30 percent), gained three to six kilos (17 percent), or lost weight (15 percent).
The study also revealed that students from “lower socioeconomic backgrounds gain more weight,” but having a college education “consistently decreases weight.” That only lasts until middle age, however.
While some other studies show varying conclusions, a meta-analysis study in February 2017 found the so-called Freshman 15 to be more fable than fact. The term "Freshman 15" is an expression commonly used in the United States to refer to the amount of weight, arbitrarily set at 15 pounds (7 kilograms) gained during a student's first year at college.
“I find that freshman year college attendance is estimated to cause only about a one-pound increase,” wrote economic professor Charles Baum of Middle Tennessee State University, after studying data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). That dataset consists of several thousand individuals, many who have been surveyed over several decades.
Amanda Schlink, a registered dietitian at American University in Washington, concurs that the Freshman 15 may be more urban legend than reality.
“I don’t believe that the Freshman 15 exists to the extent today as it might have been in decades past,” says Schlink. “This decrease in weight gain is likely a combination of both healthy food offerings on college campuses and mindfulness around food choices.”
Healthy vegetarian and gluten-free options are more available. Many fast-food restaurants offer garden salads and vegetables as sides. College students are active. Many freshmen walk or bike more than before, helping to burn off calories.
Dining halls and food service strive to make their meal plan more desirable than instant ramen noodles and mac’n’cheese (macaroni and cheeze), classic dorm-room staples. While they are easy and quick, they are full of calories but empty of nutrition. One package of chicken-flavored ramen noodles fills up one-third of the daily recommended sodium (salt) intake, while providing only about a tenth of the 2,000 calories that is used as the standard intake for an adult.
Another pitfall for first-year students can be energy drinks. The drinks jack up students with excess sugar and caffeine. Monster, a popular energy drink has up to 160 mg of caffeine in a 16-fluid ounce container, compared to the average cup of coffee which contains 95 mg. Convenience does not always mean healthy, and students should read nutrition labels to know what they are putting in their bodies.
Most colleges have well-equipped athletic facilities that encourage students like Erika Linke, a freshman at American University, to stay active. She hits the gym about six days a week to burn off the calories.
“I try to do a five mile (8 kilometer) run or workout everyday,” Linke said. “Having a gym so close and free, especially for a college student is really helpful.”
Schlink suggested focusing on the “Fab Four” when it comes to meals and snacks: carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats and fiber.
“If an individual is consuming food choices from these four groups at meals and snacks, they will be eating well, while balancing their energy needs to fuel their bodies in a healthy way,” she said.
And what about freshmen who report the opposite, losing instead of gaining weight? The Freshman -15? There are two main culprits behind this is subversion of expectations, according to Schlink, has two main sources: time management and stress.
“For some, they are so busy with the academic demands that they may forget to enjoy meals or simply don’t have time for a sit-down meal.” says Schlink.
Donal Gannon contributed to this report.