College students won't necessarily succumb to expanding waistlines.

College freshman can look forward to a few lifestyle changes when they matriculate into academia: tuition bills, long nights of studying, longer nights of drinking and wider pants—the result of putting on about 15 lbs. But a new study suggests incoming college students might not have to fear the dreaded “freshman 15” any longer.

Researchers at Rutgers’ Cook College have found the “freshman 15” phenomenon to be greatly exaggerated. Nutritionist Daniel Hoffman discovered that while some students do gain a few pounds, the increase isn’t universal quite like midterms and student loan debt.

“I’m not sure where the myth comes from,” said Hoffman. “I think [the phrase] flows well.”

Alliteration aside, Hoffman’s team weighed 67 Rutgers freshmen meandering around the dinning halls as part of a health assessment in the fall, and then weighed them again in the spring. Three-quarters of the students participating in the study did gain an average of 7 lbs., a result of consuming an extra 112 calories (or the equivalent of two Oreo cookies) per day.

“Either they decreased their activities by 112 calories or increased their intake,” said Hoffman.

If this energy imbalance is sustained for four years, a graduating senior could put on a total of 27 lbs. during his or her time in college. Hoffman said students who do put on the pounds don’t have immediate health risks, but eventually could run the risk of type II diabetes or heart disease.

“The fact that a relatively small change in calories consumed compared to the energy expanded could result in significant fat underscores the importance for eating a balanced diet and engaging in moderate exercise,” said Hoffman. “A more interesting question is what factors are promoting that energy imbalance.”

Gabe Elsner a freshman at U.C. Berkeley, who has yet to put on weight, said there is an adjustment period when students enter college.

“I had some problems getting exercise the first semester due to time management, but I figured out a schedule,” he said.

Some freshmen have trouble adjusting their diets once they’re away from their mother’s kitchen. Dorm food isn’t exactly for the high palette.

“At first I thought it was really good,” said Elsner, “but it’s like the ‘camp food effect.’ It all has the same flavor.”

Perhaps it’s the bad dorm food that helps keep freshman fit after all.

Originally published February 8, 2006

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