A new study finds an average increase of 10 pounds over four years, setting them on a dangerous trajectory.
By Tom Jacobs
Oxford undergraduates on a drinking escapade, circa 1824. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Parents: Did you notice anything about your son or daughter when they arrived home from college for the holidays? Does it look like they’ve put on weight since you saw them last?
There’s a good chance your eyes are not deceiving you. Newly published research reports one group of university students gained an average of 10 pounds as they earned their degree.
Contrary to a widely reported myth, this weight gain is not confined to freshmen. At least among these students, the extra pounds accumulated gradually over their four undergraduate years.
The results suggest “students gain weight throughout college,” writes a research team led by Lizzy Pope of the University of Vermont. The finding “highlights the need for weight-control interventions to target more than just freshman college students,” she and her colleagues write in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
The students, who were enrolled at a public university in the northeast, had their height and weight measured four times over their freshman year (2011–12), and again in the spring of 2015, when they were graduating seniors. During that final check-in, they also completed a questionnaire about their eating and drinking habits, as well as other health-related behaviors including exercise.
The study participants were either less than truthful in recounting their eating habits, or were largely oblivious regarding how much they were consuming.
The students’ mean weight increased from 147 when they were incoming freshmen to 157 toward the end of their senior year. The researchers report they gained about three pounds, on average, during their freshman year, meaning the bulk of the weight gain occurred later on.
While they did grow slightly taller, on average, over the four years, that increase “could not plausibly account” for the entire weight gain, the researchers write. Indeed, their body-mass index, which takes height into account, also increased significantly over their undergraduate years.
Overall, 23 percent of the students were either overweight or obese when they entered college, and 41 percent fit one of those categories as they neared completion of their senior year. That’s a troubling statistic, since “one’s weight as a young adult is a predictor of the trajectory of one’s adult weight,” the researchers note.
The senior-year survey of eating habits yielded an odd finding: The students’ “average daily caloric intake remained lower than the needs of most college students.”
“This caloric deficit did not match the observed weight gain,” the researchers write. This is a dry way of saying study participants were either less than truthful in recounting their eating habits, or were largely oblivious regarding how much they were consuming.
Another piece of self-reporting did track with the students’ weight gain. Only 15 percent reported they engaged in the American Heart Association’s recommended half-hour of moderate physical activity five days a week.
That figure is surprising and discouraging, given that “participants originally signed up for a study on incentivizing physical activity.”
“Theoretically,” the researchers write, “this should have been a motivated population that was more inclined to physical activity than a random sample.”
So what is it about college that encourages overeating and sedentary behavior? Given that late adolescence is often a time when lifelong habits are established, it is important to find out.
In the meantime, be grateful for the flowing design of those graduation gowns.