Will I Get Fat? 15 Signs You’ll Gain Weight

The ‘Freshman 15’ has been busted as a myth, but going to college can still pack on the pounds.

Markus Moellenberg / Corbis

A new study suggests that the famous “Freshman 15” is a myth. Others say don’t be so sure. Which turning points in life make us pack on the pounds? Getting married, quitting smoking, enjoying the winter holidays—and losing our jobs.

1. The true number of pounds gained by female first-year college students is one-fifth of the famous “Freshman 15.”

On average, freshmen women gain just over three pounds, according to the new study that yielded this stat. “No more than 10 percent of college freshmen gained 15 pounds,” write its authors, “so the vast majority did not experience the ‘Freshman 15.’ Moreover, 25 percent of college freshmen reported losing weight during their first year... 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 misperception of being overweight, especially among young women.”

Zagorsky, Jay L., and Smith, Patricia K. “The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Inervention or Media Myth?Social Science Quarterly, 92 (5), 1389-1407.

2. Weight gained during the six-week winter holiday season accounts for 51 percent of all weight gained by the general population over the entire year.

It’s not just the roast goose and Pfeffernüsse. Holidays often involve major cash expenditures and large, lingering meals that double as family reunions. “Three words and two hormones: stress, food, and alcohol, leading to increased insulin and cortisol,” says family physician Jade Teta, author of The New ME Diet. Combine these factors in any situation, “and you have a perfect recipe for fat gain.”

Roberts, S.B., and Mayer, J. “Holiday Weight Gain: Fact or Fiction?Nutrition Review, 58 (12), 378-9.

3. Unemployment is more than twice as likely to result in major weight gain than major weight loss.

In the study that yielded this stat, 3 percent of men who became unemployed lost more than 10 percent of their pre-unemployment body weight; 8 percent gained that much. “The three factors at play here are purpose, esteem, and income—probably in that order,” says Zoë Harcombe, author of The Obesity Epidemic. “Losing our job means losing our main activity, which gives us time on our hands—to eat. Losing our esteem can make us want to comfort-eat, and losing income drives poor food choices. Unemployment does not bode well for health or weight.”

Morris, J.K., et al. “Non-employment and Changes in Smoking, Drinking, and Body Weight.” British Medical Journal, 304 (6826), 536-541.

4. Female first-year university students gain weight 36 times faster than non-college women of the same age.

“There is nothing more powerful than social pressure, and there is nothing more comforting than food,” Teta says. “When stress hits, people seek company and they seek food.” Freshman year involves lots of all three. The good news is that weight gained during freshman year tends to be lost again by junior year: The authors of the study that yielded these stats attribute this loss to “a move from mandatory dormitory housing and cafeteria food services.”

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Hovell, M.F., et al. “Risk of Excess Weight Gain in University Women: A Three-Year Community Controlled Analysis.” Addictive Behaviors, 10 (1), 15-28.

5. Getting married increases women’s risk of major weight gain by 48 percent.

According to research presented this summer at the 106th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, tying the knot can pack on the pounds—especially for women over 30. Females in general face a 33 percent risk of minor weight gain, defined as a three-point increase in the body-mass index, upon getting married, but an even higher risk of major weight gain, defined as more than a three-point increase in the body-mass index.

Tumin, Dmitry, and Qian, Zhenchao. Research delivered at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association: Las Vegas, Aug. 22, 2011.

6. Men who quit smoking face an 8 percent chance of gaining more than 28 pounds as a result.

And women who quit smoking face a 6 percent chance of gaining more than 28 pounds. Facing an even higher risk of gaining that much weight are African Americans, people under 55, and people who smoked at least 15 cigarettes a day, according to the study that includes these stats. ”Cigarettes feed brain chemistry, and so does food,” Teta says. “Take away the smokes and the next feel-good chemical close at hand is food.”

Williamson, D.F., et al. “Smoking Cessation and Severity of Weight Gain in a National Cohort.” New England Journal of Medicine, 324 (11), 739-45.

7. Feeling comfortable in a relationship is more than four times as likely to result in weight gain as is giving up smoking.

The study that yielded this stat surveyed participants regarding life events that had caused them to gain or lose weight. Pregnancy topped the weight-gain triggers, while “relationship problems” topped the weight-loss triggers. According to Harcombe, happy coupledom often includes food: “Meals out, meals in, takeaways, chocolates, breakfast in bed: Say ‘I love you just the way you are’ and the weight piles on.”

Ogden, Jane, et al. “Understanding the Role of Life Events in Weight Loss and Weight Gain.” Psychology, Health and Medicine, 14 (2), 239-249.

8. Forty percent of men experience “sympathetic pregnancy” and gain weight while their partners are pregnant.

The condition, technically known as couvade syndrome, finds males vicariously sharing their female partners’ pregnancy symptoms—such as nausea, backache, increased appetite, and food cravings. According to the book that yielded these stats, the fathers-to-be in one study “craved chocolate, ice cream, potato chips, and fried eggs.” In another study, “one man reported that he felt compelled to incubate and help hatch out a clutch of bantam chickens.”

Reed, Richard K. Birthing Fathers: The Transformation of Men in American Rites of Birth. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005: page 68.

9. Newly divorced women face a 22 percent chance of gaining weight.

Post-divorce weight gain is even more common among men, according to research presented this summer at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. While some folks inhale ice cream in the aftermath of a breakup, others “are too upset to eat and find the pounds being lost as quickly as the ex,” Harcombe says. “Food is often a substitute for emotions.”

Tumin, Dmitry, and Qian, Zhenchao. Research delivered at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association: Las Vegas, August 22, 2011.

10. Female first-year college students gain two-thirds as much weight as male first-year college students.

The “Freshman 15” gets all the buzz, but guys outgain girls. “A young female’s biggest challenge is often self-esteem, while young men have to deal with that gigantic male ego,” Teta says. During that first year at college, “this sends women to the treadmill and men to the beer bong.”

Zagorsky, Jay L., and Smith, Patricia K. “The Freshman 15: A Critical Time for Obesity Intervention or Media Myth?Social Science Quarterly, 92 (5), 1389-1407.

11. Females who were sexually abused as children are nearly three times more likely to be obese by age 27 than females who were not abused.

“We are not purporting a causal link between sexual abuse and obesity per se,” write the authors of the study that yielded this stat, “but are suggesting a plausible link between the various consequences that are associated with severe childhood adversity and the subsequent development of obesity... Female individuals with traumatic pasts may have particularly high-risk growth trajectories in late childhood and adolescence and that obesity prevention efforts targeting these points in development may be warranted.”

Noll, Jennie G., et al. “Obesity Risk for Female Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Prospective Study.” Pediatrics, 120 (1), 61-67.

12. Women who move in with their partners without marrying them gain only one-fifth as much weight as women who marry their partners.

Women who enter into cohabitation relationships outside of marriage gain only one pound on average, according to the study that yielded this stat. By comparison, women entering into traditional marriages gain seven pounds and women entering into marriages with prenuptual agreements gain six. According to the scholars whose report includes these figures, “Cohabitators have a significantly higher probability that their relationships will dissolve than either of the married groups. Thus, cohabitators have a strong incentive to maintain their weight because the probability they will re-enter the dating market is high.”

Shafrin, Jason and Gneezy, Uri. “Why Does Getting Married Make You Fat? Incentives and Appearance Maintenance,” a paper co-produced by a professor and doctoral student in the Rady School of Management and Department of Economics, University of California, San Diego, 2009.

13. Obese people gain five times more weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than they do throughout the rest of the year.

“The holidays clearly established their potential to challenge even highly experienced weight controllers,” write the authors of the study that yielded this stat. “These findings suggest that the impact of the holidays could dampen momentum for many weight controllers, leading to major lapses” in attempts to lose weight.

Baker, Raymond C., and Kirschenbaum, Daniel S. “Weight Control During the Holidays: Highly Consistent Self-Monitoring as a Potentially Useful Coping Mechanism.” Health Psychology, 17 (4), 376-370.

14. Three times as many African-American women as Caucasian women experience major weight gain while pregnant.

Women gain on average six pounds per pregnancy, according to the study yielded this stat. However, its authors warn, 15 percent to 20 percent of pregnant women experience “significant weight increases after delivery.” In this study, “the risk of very high weight increases”—defined as more than 20 pounds—“occurred three times more often among black women compared with white women.”

Gunderson, Erica, and Abrams, Barbara. “Epidemiology of Gestational Weight Gain and Body Weight Changes After Pregnancy.” Epidemiological Review, 22 (2), 261-74.

15. Some 70 percent of college freshmen eat fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and more than 50 percent eat fried or high-fat fast foods at least three times a week.

These lifestyle choices, along with the fact that 29 percent engage in no aerobic exercise, contribute to the fact that 70 percent of college students have gained weight by the end of sophomore year, according to a study conducted at Washington University in Missouri.

Racette, Susan B., et al. “Weight Changes, Exercise, and Dietary Patterns During Freshman and Sophomore Years of College.” Journal of American College Health, 53 (6), 245.