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BU nutrition professors, student talk about the impacts of the ‘Freshman 15’ myth

For incoming freshmen, learning to balance academic studies while handling new responsibilities such as meal-prepping and laundry is a challenge. These responsibilities are daunting as some students desperately avoid the myth of the infamous “Freshman 15.”

a weight scale
A scale. Nutrition faculty in the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences demystify and explain the problems with the “Freshman 15” myth, the belief that some students will gain 15 pounds during their first year of college. COURTESY OF DEBORA CARTAGENA VIA PIXNIO

“Freshman 15” is the belief that some students will gain 15 pounds during their first year of college.

No credible scientific studies have ever found the “Freshman 15” to be accurate, while numerous studies have disproved the myth. According to a 2011 study by Ohio State University, the average freshman may gain between 2.5 to 3.5 pounds.

Joan Salge Blake, a clinical professor in nutrition at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, was interviewed on Boston 25 News last month. She discussed the “Freshman 15” myth popularized by a 1989 Seventeen magazine article where the author recounted their own experiences with gaining weight during college.

“Science suggests that on average, students consume freshman year about three pounds,” Salge Blake said. “Those that don’t go to college right out of high school … gained almost just about the same amount of weight.”

Salge Blake said misconceptions regarding college diets can foster unhealthy relationships with food.

“They’re worried about when they go off to college … and what happens is they end up restricting their diet to the point where they’re not eating healthily,” Salge Blake said. “There’s enough anxiety in the freshman year that they don’t need to be worried about something that’s not based on science.”

Mia Sugarman is a senior at Sargent and a student ambassador for Sargent Choice Test Kitchen, an extension of Sargent’s Nutrition Center. There, they learn recipes from BU professional dietitians and “if they’re hit, sometimes they make it into the dining hall,” Sugarman said. The Test Kitchen also has a blog with recipes.

Sugarman said incoming freshmen can have issues creating a balanced diet because many students are not used to cooking for themselves.

“When a lot of students come to university, they’re leaving home for the first time,” Sugarman said. “Figuring out what it means to cook and how to feed themselves, as well as doing homework and going to class and being sociable, can be really challenging.”

Karen Jacobs, clinical professor, program director of post professional doctorate in occupational therapy and the associate dean for Digital Learning & Innovation Department at Sargent, said it can be particularly difficult for students as they transition back from online classes to in-person classes, and Jacobs recommends “resetting your schedule.”

“I really encourage students as they’re back on campus, to look at what’s really important for them, to look at what they’re passionate about, to think about what things they want to accomplish and to let go of the things that perhaps are not essential right now,” Jacobs said.

Salge Blake also said diet myths can have an impact on college students due to stress, even those who are not incoming students.

“It doesn’t matter what year they’re in in college,” Salge Blake said. “It’s unnecessary stress and anxiety that they don’t need to be worried about.”

According to a study published in 2020 in the journal Nutrients, students with higher stress levels engaged in less healthy dietary behaviors. Salge Blake said that especially with the growth of social media, harmful diet culture has become increasingly widespread.

“There’s the diet books and health books written by people that do not have the proper credentials,” Salge Blake said. “This has been going on forever.”

Jacobs said it is important that students reach out to professionals if they feel anxious about maintaining a balanced diet.

“No one needs to feel alone,” Jacobs said, “and if they’re feeling stressed out about what should I eat, how do I cook, there are resources out there for them.”

The Sargent Choice Nutrition Center offers a wide range of nutrition services, including seminars, workshops and counseling. Sugarman said that the Test Kitchen is a place students can also use to healthily improve their dietary habits.

“The Sargent Choice Test Kitchen provides a place where students can learn how to cook easy and healthy recipes together and talk about food in a very positive atmosphere,” Sugarman said. “It also gives people the place to learn new skills about cooking and to learn how they can improve their eating habits.”

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