The Freshman 15 is real, and could be a bigger problem than parents or college students realize. A new study finds 70% of college students gain weight and body fat by graduation, fueled by late night snacking, fattening dorm meals, and a lack of exercise.

By Amy O'Connor
Updated: January 30, 2017

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Ah, fall. The air turns cooler. Leaves are falling. And thousands of college students are partying, snacking 24/7, pulling all nighters...and about to pack on the infamous Freshman 15.

In the first study to examine weight changes during four years of college, however, researchers suggest that weight gain during the pursuit of higher education may go well beyond the first year, and could be a bigger health threat than parents, students, or scientists realized.

Researchers at Auburn University in Alabama followed 131 students over four years of college and found that a whopping 70% of them packed on pounds by graduation (an average of 12, and up to 37 pounds). The overall percentage of students found to be overweight increased from 18% to 31%. The researchers noted gains in body fat composition and waist circumference as well.

The new study, published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, flies in the face of previous studies, which found that the average student gains merely 2.5 to 3.5 pounds and accused the media of fomenting the "Freshman 15 Myth."

But the researchers in the Auburn study observed that the "growth" they found in the college students consisted primarily of fat mass (meaning natural growth patterns could not account for it). They attributed the weight gain to late night study habits, often fueled by vending machine snacks; fattening choices in college cafeterias, and a lack of activity.

Here are five ways college students can eat healthy and avoid gaining weight:

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