BACKGROUND: Weight change in first year university students, often referred to as 'Freshman 15', has been shown to be a common problem in North America. Studies have reported weight gain to be between 1 kg and 4 kg over the academic year and a recent meta-analysis found a mean gain of 1.34 kg and that 61 % of students gained weight. A limited number of studies have investigated weight change in England and large scale studies are needed to understand better weight change trends and to conduct subgroup analyses. This is important in the context of rising obesity prevalence, especially as behaviours and unhealthy weight in early adulthood often remains over the lifetime.
METHODS: We recruited students across 23 universities in England to complete a web-based survey at three time points in 2014-2015: beginning of academic year, December, end of academic year. Students were asked to self-report height and weight. We calculated weight change of each student between time points and conducted t-tests and pared analysis of variance to investigate the effect of time, sex and initial BMI. We also investigated weight change amongst weight gainers and in weight losers separately.
RESULTS: We followed 215 students over three time points and found a mean weight change of 0.98 kg (95%CI 0.49-1.47) over a mean length of 34 weeks of follow-up. The weight change rate was not significantly different over different terms. Over 51 % of the sample gained more than 0.5 kg by the end of the academic year, with a mean gain of 3.46 kg. Female weight gainers had a significantly lower baseline weight than non-weight gaining females. Twenty-five percent of the sample lost more than 0.5 kg with a mean of -3.21 kg. Within weight losers, males lost significantly more weight than females.
CONCLUSION: Our findings reinforce that the first year of university is a crucial time in the life of students during which the majority tend to gain weight. However, we also found that 25 % lost weight, indicating that 75 % of students undergo a meaningful weight change in their first year. Universities must recognise their role in promoting healthy weight maintenance.