The information trail of the ‘Freshman 15’—a systematic review of a health myth within the research and popular literature


Correspondence: Cecelia Brown, School of Library and Information Studies, The University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019, USA. E-mail:


Question:   How does health misinformation become part of the American and Canadian vernacular?

Data sources and selection:   Twenty-three databases were searched for articles discussing university freshmen weight gain. Research articles were examined for methodology, number and gender of the participants and weight gain. Popular press articles were reviewed for the types of information published: expert/anecdotal, weight gain, nutrition, exercise, health and alcohol. A timeline of article publication dates was generated.

Results:   Twenty peer-reviewed, 19 magazine, 146 newspaper, and 141 university newspaper articles were discovered. Appearance of media articles about the ‘Freshman 15’ mirrored the peer-reviewed articles, yet the information did not reliably depict the research. Research indicated a weight gain of less than five pounds (2.268 kg), while half of the popular press publications claimed a 15-pound (6.804 kg) weight gain. The misinformation was frequently accompanied by information about achieving weight control through diet, exercise, stress reduction and alcohol avoidance.

Conclusion:   Understanding of how the concept of the ‘Freshman 15’ developed indicates that remediation efforts are needed. Collaborative efforts between health science and academic librarians, faculty and journalists to construct new paradigms for the translation of scientific evidence into information that individuals can use for decisions about health and well-being is suggested.