Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Insights into University Freshman Weight Issues and How They Make Decisions about Eating

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Insights into University Freshman Weight Issues and How They Make Decisions about Eating

Article excerpt

The transition from high school to college represents a life turning point during which health behavior paths may be influenced. This study addresses the internal and external factors that guide students' eating decisions as they are understood and relayed by students through qualitative methods. A sample of 102 second semester college freshmen participated in a two-week data collection period. Results show that many students are caught in a negative cycle of food choices with notable social and environmental determinants impacting both their physical and emotional health.


From a life-course perspective, the time period when traditionally aged students (17-20 years) transition from high school to college represents a turning point during which health behavior paths may be influenced (Bryant and Dundes 2005; Wickrama et al. 2003). The myriad stressors college freshmen face from homework, interpersonal relationships, altered sleep patterns and loneliness compound any potential for poor eating and exercise behaviors (Anderson, Shapiro, and Lundgren 2003). This issue is all the more alarming with recent reports regarding growing levels of overweight and obesity among youth: Among children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years, 17.1% were overweight in 2003 to 2004 (Ogden et al. 2006). At some point during their lifespan, the 31% of overweight children can likely expect to become part of the 67% of overweight adults in the United States (CDC 2006).


Previous research about college freshmen and weight gain--often called the "freshman 15" for the 15 pounds they are assumed to gain after entering college--has focused largely on documenting diet and physical activity (Bray and Born 2004; Graham and Jones 2002; Hodge, Jackson, and Sullivan 1993; Hoffman et al. 2006; Levitsky, Halbmaier, and Mrdjenovic 2004; Racette et al. 2005). However, research suggests that the name "freshman 15" may be a misnomer.

How Much Weight Change and When

Several studies of freshmen men and women revealed statistically significant weight gain among many freshmen, but the average weight gain reported is less than the "freshman 15" phrase implies. For example, Morrow et al. (2006) found that female freshmen gained on average 1 kg of body weight between first and second semesters. Small average increases were also noted in BMI, percentage of body fat, total fat mass and waist circumference. Hoffman et al. (2006) found that freshmen gained an average of 2.86 pounds (1.3 kg), but for those students who gained weight, the mean increase in body weight was 6.82 pounds. In terms of how many students gain weight, Anderson, Shapiro, and Lundgren (2003) found that 25% of freshmen gained at least 2.3 kg during the first semester of college. Racette et al. (2005) found that 70% of their student sample had gained weight by the end of their sophomore year. Across the first two years of college, Lloyd-Richardson et al. (in press) found the most weight gain among students during the first semester of the freshman year.

Factors Effecting Student Eating Decisions and Weight Change

There are a variety of studies dealing with college student diet and physical activity that might offer clues into causes of freshman weight change. For example, eating in all-you-can-eat dining halls and snacking/eating high-fat junk foods were found to contribute 20% each to freshman weight gain (Levitsky, Halbmaier, and Mrdjenovic 2004). Increased independence from family, binge drinking, overeating following alcohol/drug use, sleep deprivation and stress management were suggested as factors to explore in understanding freshmen eating decisions (Nelson et al. 2009), however, the authors suggested little research has explored these issues. Cluskey and Grobe (2009) reported that freshmen in their study agreed that environmental influences impacted their eating behaviors and the challenge of establishing or maintaining healthy lifestyles were completely unanticipated by the students. …

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