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Dorm Food + Junk Food = College Weight Gain

July 31, 2003 -- If your kid's heading to college this fall, you'll probably see a heftier kid this winter. Those "all-you-can-eat" cafeterias -- plus late-night snack attacks -- translate into extra pounds in the first semester.

It's known as the "freshman 15" -- the 15 pounds that first-year college students gain, writes lead researcher David A. Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University. He presented his findings on the freshman 15 this summer at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behaviors held in Groningen, Netherlands.

"Significant weight gain during the first semester of college is a real phenomenon," Levitsky says in a news release. In fact, his study found that breakfast and lunch at all-you-can-eat dining facilities account for 20% of freshman weight gain.

Levitsky's study involved 60 Cornell freshmen -- 85% of whom were girls -- who agreed to be weighed at the beginning of freshman year and 12 weeks later. They also completed questionnaires both times about their eating, sleeping, and exercising habits.

In tallying the results, researchers found:

  • The average weight gain was about one-half pound per week -- almost 11 times more than 17- and 18-year-olds should normally gain.
  • Students ate an estimated 174 more calories than they burned in a day's time.

In fact, the students' weight gain was 20 times more than the average American adult gains -- and adults are getting quite obese, says Levitsky.

The dining halls accounted for 20% of weight gain; students ate larger-sized meals frequently -- including weekends -- and ate until they felt full just about every time, he reports. They also ate considerable amounts of high-fat snacks and "junk food," which accounted for another 20% of their weight gain.

"Although the use of all-you-can-eat dining halls may be effective as a recruiting technique for colleges, these food bars may be responsible for much of the weight gain we see in freshmen," Levitsky says. Over the years, eating a few extra calories a day can accumulate into significant weight gain.

Humans tend to clean their plates -- and when students take large portions, they consume them, he says. Easy access to junk food in dorms and around campus also contributes to the freshman 15.

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