WEDNESDAY, Nov. 2, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Although many college students are wary of gaining the dreaded "freshman 15," most only put on between 2.5 to 3.5 pounds during their first year in college, a new study shows.
And, the researchers noted, this weight gain is typical for all young adults -- not just those in college.
"The 'freshman 15' is a media myth," study co-author Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research, said in a university news release. "Most students don't gain large amounts of weight. And it is not college that leads to weight gain -- it is becoming a young adult."
Nevertheless, widespread concern among students over weight gain could have serious consequences for college students, the study authors noted.
"Repeated use of the phrase 'the freshman 15,' even if it is being used just as a catchy, alliterative figure of speech, may contribute to the perception of being overweight, especially among young women," warned Zagorsky. "Weight gain should not be a primary concern for students going off to college."
In conducting the study, the researchers analyzed data from more than 7,000 students who were surveyed in 1997 when they were aged 13 to 17, and then interviewed each year after about their weight and college status.
The investigators found that women gained an average of 2.4 pounds during their freshman year, compared to 3.4 pounds among men. The researchers pointed out that no more than 10 percent of college freshmen gained 15 pounds or more, and about one in four reported actually losing weight.
The study also revealed that the only factor that made a significant difference in students' weight gain was heavy drinking. But even those students gained less than a pound more than their peers who didn't drink as much. The researchers pointed out that another suspected cause of weight gain -- living in dorms -- did not increase the amount of weight students gained their first year in college.
"There has been concern that access to all-you-can-eat cafeterias and abundant fast-food choices, with no parental oversight, may lead to weight gain, but that doesn't seem to hold true for most students," said Zagorsky.
Although most freshmen don't come close to gaining 15 pounds, by the time they are ready to graduate they could have put on almost that much weight. The study found the typical woman gains between seven and nine pounds, while men gain between 12 and 13 pounds over their college careers.
"Not only is there not a 'freshman 15,' there doesn't appear to be even a 'college 15' for most students," Zagorsky said.
Students who worked while they attended school gained an extra one-fifth of a pound for each month they worked, the study also showed. Although most students don't need to worry about significant weight gain during freshman year, the study found that after graduation the typical student gained another 1.5 pounds each year.
"Anyone who gains 1.5 pounds every year will become obese over time, no matter their initial weight," Zagorsky added. "Students should begin developing the habit of eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. Those habits will help them throughout their lives."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides health and safety tips for college students.