Auburn University study on weight gain among college students published in Canadian journal

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – A four-year study conducted at Auburn University that found students gained approximately 12 pounds after four years of college, rather than the 15 pounds commonly associated with the freshman year, has been published in the Canadian journal, Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.

“While dozens of studies have investigated weight gain during the freshman year of college and have reported on the so-called ‘Freshman 15,’ our study is the first to examine changes in weight, body mass index, body composition and body shape over the four-year college period,” said Sareen Gropper, a co-author of the study and professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management.

Gropper and three colleagues in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, professors Lenda Jo Connell and Pamela Ulrich and assistant professor Karla Simmons from the Department of Consumer and Design Sciences, followed 131 Auburn students from the beginning of their freshman year to the end of their senior year and concluded that the much-feared 15-pound weight gain during the first year of college no longer exists.

They say a ‘College 15’ is more accurate, as about 70 percent of the students in the study gained weight after four years of college – an average of 15 pounds for males and 9.3 pounds for females.

Most of the weight gained was attributed to added body fat, which increased by approximately 11 pounds in males and 8.5 pounds in females. The percentage of participants considered overweight or obese increased from 18 percent to 31 percent by the end of the study.

“Many students are active in high school with sports, but they stop, or are less active, when they get to college,” said Simmons. “That is one change that can lead to weight gain.”

And such weight gain in young people can make certain health issues more prevalent. The study found that the females added most of their extra weight to the hips and seat, while the males put it at the waist.

“Increases in waist circumference have been associated with heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, among other health conditions,” said Gropper. “Moreover, excess body fat, even in those who are normal weight, can put them at increased risk for some diseases.”

None of the students in the study initially had excess body fat. By the time they graduated, however, 3 percent had healthy BMIs, but unhealthy amounts of fat.

“It is part of college to eat poorly or not at all and to not be active,” said Simmons. “That pattern could become a lifelong habit.”

Besides focusing on their education, Ulrich said they recommend college students strive to make time to exercise and eat healthy. She added that studies suggest that regular exercise is a stress reducer.

“This study highlights that students need to make healthy choices and also that the institutions need to take steps to facilitate these decisions,” said Terry Graham, editor of APNM and a professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph in Canada.

At Auburn, there are resources to help students including a campus dietician and the new recreation and wellness center that will expand fitness options for students.

The paper, “Changes in body weight, composition, and shape: a 4-year study of college students,” is available at http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/full/10.1139/h2012-139.

(Written by Amy Weaver.)

Contacts: Sareen Gropper, College of Human Sciences, (334) 844-3271 (groppss@auburn.edu), or

Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)