A registered dietician says the so-called “freshmen fifteen” is a myth, referring to the weight many college students are said to pack on their first year. Kathy Mellen, a lecturer in the University of Iowa’s Health and Sport Studies Department, says it’s actually closer to five pounds, but not for all students.

“That five-pound weight gain is an average,” Mellen says. “There’s first-year students who may lose weight during their first year, those that maintain and then there may be some that gain a little bit more than that as well.” She says research finds female freshmen typically gain three-to-five pounds, while the males gain five-to-seven. Mellen says one of the biggest concerns is that the weight gains continue to happen every year.

“What we’re seeing is that it’s not 15 pounds for freshmen,” Mellen says. “It may be the freshmen five, but then it becomes the sophomore five, the junior five and it could be, by the time they leave college, they’re 15 to 20 pounds heavier than when they started school.” College students need to have enough self-discipline, she says, to develop good eating and exercise habits early on and stick to them.

“Really survey what’s available as far as options for eating as well as physical activity,” Mellen says. “We know that the weight gain that occurs in their first year is due to a combination of a decrease in physical activity and access to more food and more options. We know the more options you have, the more you’ll consume.”

For some students, having a meal plan and a well-stocked cafeteria just down the hall is too much to resist and they quickly fall victim to binging. “We tell students to make sure they’re eating a well-balanced diet,” Mellen says. “Start with fruits and vegetables at your meal, include whole grains, include lean protein sources, but make sure that you’re not overconsuming, so portion oftentimes is the problem.”

She suggests students seek out ways to stay physically active, like joining an intramural sport and skipping the campus bus in favor of walking to class.