Letter to the editor: ‘Freshman 15’ fishy

Amy Siebels’ article, “Extra weight stalks college freshmen,” reports on a published study that found an average weight gain of four pounds during the first twelve weeks of college at Cornell, a rate of weight gain that if sustained for twelve months would result in a “freshman fifteen.” I tracked body composition in a convenience sample of thirty first-year students over the entire 2000-2001 academic year at Pomona College. After nine months, there was no statistically significant weight change among the fourteen men in the study and an average gain of only 3.5 lbs among the sixteen women. Two men and two women gained more than ten pounds during the course of the year. This pattern of change is not unexpected, and not necessarily unhealthy, since many in the 17-19 year old age group are still in the process of maturing physically, and come to college in a lean condition. It was also the case for the students in this sample that weight loss or weight gain experienced during the fall semester was often reversed during winter break and spring semester. In addition, for most students summer is a time of increased activity levels and decreasing bodyweight and was not accounted for in either the Cornell study or in mine. The conclusion, therefore, that the rate of fall weight gain found in the Cornell study would continue for an entire year, supporting the notion of a “freshman fifteen,” should be questioned.

I also question the implied focus on bodyweight as an index of a nutritionally successful freshman year. Bodyweight is a crude measure of nutritional health that masks important differences in body composition, and in cardiovascular and aerobic fitness. Regular, moderately strenuous exercise in combination with a healthy diet is the surest route toward “freshman fitness” and away from the freshman fifteen. Instead of setting bodyweight goals for the academic year, freshman and most of the rest of us, would be better served by setting sensible fitness goals – racquetball games per week, miles of jogging or rowing, hours spent at the gym or in the dance studio. Work toward those goals and the freshman fifteen need not be a concern.

-Mark R. Jenike
Lawrence University
Department of Anthropology