Every August, millions of young adults matriculate to colleges and universities across the country. A good number of them will put on weight during their first-year. Many will appear noticeably heavier–and we’re not talking about added muscle, either.
This phenomenon is sometimes called the “Freshman 15,” and suggests that first-year college students tend to put on about 15 pounds over the course of their first year. The Freshman 15 has been attributed to a host of situational explanations, including increased access to alcohol, peer pressure to consume the alcohol, more demanding classes and heightened expectations for studying, continuous exposure to unhealthy foods in college cafeterias, the prevalence of low-cost, fast food restaurants in and around campus, and the late night studying- or partying-induced “midnight munchies,” where a student has stayed up too late and craves food, with Dominoes Pizza and the like catering to their hunger needs into the wee hours of the morning.
Some believe that the Freshman Fifteen is exaggerated. Nutrition Professors Alison Duncan and Janis Randall Simpson of the University of Guelph, for instance, recently published a study finding that at least among female first-year students at their university (which is located in Ontario, Canada), the average weight gain is only 5 pounds. Yet other observers believe the Freshman Fifteen is quite true.
A new article by Steve Gershman and Hai-Jung Kim in the Tufts Observer examines the Freshman 15 through a survey of Tufts students. We excerpt portions of their article below.
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A vast majority of students interviewed in an Observer survey set times for eating meals. In addition, many of them provided unprompted insights into their behavioral patterns. “I eat lunch around 12:30 and dinner around seven depending on classes,” says senior Josh Yellin. Likewise, other students claimed that their class or work schedules were the most influential factors determining when they ate meals.
Robin Kanarek, a psychology professor at Tufts, says these abnormal eating habits are largely due to a “society of work,” and how “people have set lives in our society” in terms of what is done at what times. In deciding when to eat, students maneuver around classes, part-time jobs, studying for tests, and extracurricular and other activities. Additionally, most students prefer to wake up as late as they can without sacrificing their commitments. Since eating breakfast is not considered a commitment, the majority of students surveyed said they eat only two meals each day. Every person who responded that he or she eats fewer than three meals a day also refrained from eating in the morning. However, breakfast is considered by medical professionals to be the most important meal of the day since it restores the glucose levels and essential nutrients necessary for the body to perform to its potential.
Prof. Kanarek provided a glimpse into a working person’s life as being even more stringently regulated in terms of eating times. “Get up, go to breakfast, work, lunch at meetings,” she says, noting that “dinner varies more than other meals.” She contrasted this routine with eating patterns she observed in Africa. She studied a group of Bushmen — indigenous people of the Kalahari Desert — who “didn’t go to work, but ate much more often than we do [and] in smaller proportions.”
People’s snacking habits depend, therefore, on the society in which they live and on their schedule. Because students are generally busy with classes, homework, errands, and extracurricular activities, they tend to eat infrequently and have large meals at the buffet-style dining halls.
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There is an additional evolutionary basis to eating in groups. Prof. Karanek conducted a study with foods that smelled different. In her experiment, a rat ate a food that smelled like licorice or basil, while another rat stood watching. The rat that saw another rat eating licorice was more likely to eat licorice. Likewise, the rat that saw another rat eating basil was more likely to eat basil. Through observation, the rats learned something about each food and found out whether it was safe to ingest.
The study exemplifies the psychological term “mere exposure effect,” in which simply sensing a person or thing brings it to the forefront of one’s mind and therefore is more familiar and often consequently more desirable. The idea that choosing to eat one thing over another as a matter of life or death is far removed from our daily reality. But the next time we decide to eat ice cream after watching a friend eat ice cream, it is interesting to note that there may be millions of years of survival at play.
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