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Back to school: Weight gain

The myth of the Freshman 15 Add to ...

Peter Janiszewski's destiny seemed written the day he left for university. His buddies joked that the next time they'd see him, he'd be 15 pounds heavier. As a 160-pound athlete who had struggled to gain heft, Mr. Janiszewski was secretly looking forward to it.

But life at the University of Western Ontario wasn't the binge-fest he had imagined. He chugged too many beer calories, but also took advantage of the free gym membership. By the time summer rolled around, he had so much money left on his cafeteria meal plan that he blew it all on bottled water and carted it home to Oshawa, Ont. Then he stepped on a scale.

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He wasn't alone, says Mr. Janiszewski, now a doctoral student at Queen's University who studies exercise and obesity - "suggesting the Freshmen 15 idea is purely myth."

Indeed, several recent studies have found that college freshman do put on a few pounds, but far less than the dreaded 15, which for decades have been used to describe the phenomenon of weight gain among first-year students. A University of Guelph study conducted two years ago - the only one to look at the phenomenon in Canada - found that women gained an average of 5 pounds in their first year, while men gained about seven. Other U.S. studies found the average weight gain was closer to 2 pounds.

Experts and students say there has been a cultural shift in the way young adults look at food. Students are leaving home more educated than ever about healthy food choices. Many have benefited from the healthy food programs and junk-food bans that have been infiltrating elementary and high schools across the country.

Universities are also doing a better job of satisfying their increasingly health-conscious clientele.

"Dining styles have evolved drastically through the years," said Joe Danis, director of housing and student life at the University of Manitoba. "I think the quality has changed and then the options. There's more options for the student than there ever was before."

Christine Lindenberg, a 22-year-old kinesiology student, has seen those changes first hand. She lost weight during her first year at the University of Manitoba, she says - mostly because "the food was so horrible that we didn't eat." Salads came pre-packaged. Friday's casserole looked suspiciously like Monday's meatloaf with cheese on top. One reoccurring menu item was called "garbage soup."

But by the time she entered second year, the university had invested $1-million in its food-services program. The cafeteria menu is much fresher, from the giant salad bar to the omelette bar at breakfast.

Now an adviser to first-year students living in residence, Ms. Lindenberg says some students still make a bee-line for burgers, but most opt for sandwiches. And when she leads campus tours and stops at the gym, most freshmen sign up for memberships.

"It's kind of been ingrained in our minds to be healthy," said Nathalie Van Damme, a third-year zoology student and also a residence adviser.

The University of Manitoba isn't the only place making changes. At the University of Alberta, new students will be greeted with a presentation on healthy eating options on campus. At Queen's University - where staff have heightened their efforts to inform students about fresh options and vegetarian fare - every first-year student, as well as their parents, will receive a calendar that contains healthy recipes from chefs working on campus. Students living off-campus can also take cooking classes sponsored by the school.

"We're trying to guide those students a little better. It can be overwhelming," said Bruce Griffiths, director of hospitality services at Queen's.

Without older data for comparison, it's difficult to determine whether these changes have affected the amount of weight gain among first-year students since the term Freshman 15 began appearing in newspaper articles more than 20 years ago.

Janis Randall-Simpson, the University of Guelph researcher who has helped debunk the Freshman 15 myth with her studies, says she still believes a small weight gain is troubling, because the pounds may not stop. Her research indicates that the culprit is most likely the increase in sedentary behaviour once students start spending long hours studying and less time playing sports, as they might have in high school.

It's a story familiar to Justin Goins. Two years ago, he left for college in Arkansas standing 5 foot 7 inches tall and a trim 150 pounds.

But in a small university town, social life revolved around eating and drinking, and Mr. Goins earned a reputation for being able to overeat. The more notoriety he gained, the more burgers and fries he ate, until he found himself constantly burping and unable to wear any of his clothes.

"We'd hang out in the cafeteria and have an unlimited meal plan. We'd eat all day and then we'd go out at night and by the time we were done at night we'd eat again," he said. "At one point I was eating 9,000 calories a day."

He returned home at Christmas break 55 pounds heavier than when he left, horrifying his parents and suffering from low self-esteem. Since then, he's changed schools for a fresh start. But after losing 25 pounds he has found it difficult to lose more.

Looking back, he knew his behaviour was reckless, but he says he got lost in the freedom of being away from home, and the desire to belong. He also felt that gaining weight was just what happened when you went off to college - a sort of rite of passage.

"I'm like hey, I'm off on my own. Eating whatever I want, drinking whatever I want."

It's an attitude that Mr. Janiszewski hopes will change. He and a colleague run a blog called Obesitypanacea.com, where they debunk misinformation about obesity and miracle cures.

The Freshman 15, he says, is one concept that he wishes would just go away.

"If you suggest that to people, inevitably people are going to shift their behaviours," he said. "You start acting in a way that will fulfill that prophecy."

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