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At colleges all across America this fall, many freshmen will begin packing on the pounds. Researchers say it's most likely to happen this semester, as kids living in campus dorms for the first time experiment with their newfound freedoms. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on the Freshman 15.

ALLISON AUBREY: The idea of the Freshman 15 goes way back. It was coined long before we began counting carbs or tracking calories on iPhone apps or websites. So is it real? Does the typical first-year college student really gain 15 pounds?

Dr. SUSAN ALBERS (Psychologist, Cleveland Clinic): The notion of the Freshman 15 is a little bit of an urban legend. It's a little bit overblown.

AUBREY: Susan Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, specializing in body image and eating disorders. She says the actual amount of weight that a typical freshman gains is, in fact, about five pounds. Studies show this is true for both men and women, many of whom say they developed one bad habit during their first year of college.

Ms. DANA CURTO (Student): I'd say definitely late night eating. Late night eating is the biggest thing, I think, at least for me.

AUBREY: Dana Curto and Berry Ginsburg are both sophomores at George Washington University. They say they learned from their mistakes last year, when they lived a stone's throw from a 7-Eleven that was open 24 hours a day.

Ms. CURTO: So like anytime youre craving like chips and salsa or ice cream, you kind of could just like go down there.

Ms. BERRY GINSBURG (Student): Yeah. I could really could too.

Ms. CURTO: And so many guy friends who like would take daily trips like two in the morning to go to 7-Eleven and just buy whatever they wanted.

Ms. GINSBURG: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Exactly.

Ms. CURTO: Yeah.

AUBREY: It's no surprise that students who are munching on chips and salsa at 2 AM don't tend to make it to the dining hall for breakfast, where there are an array of fabulously healthy options, from fresh cut fruits to protein-packed omelets. It's a vicious cycle.

Dr. SHERRIE DELINSKY (Researcher): The first meal of the day might be at noon or two o'clock. So it's actually pretty normal for them to be eating late at night.

AUBREY: That's researcher Sherrie Delinsky, who studied the habits of college freshman, and finds they don't all adapt to the all-you-can-eat meal plan culture in the same way. In her study of women, she found 24 percent of students actually lost weight. And these women had one thing in common. They seemed to arrive on campus with set strategies for eating.

Dr. DELINSKY: So, those are the people who were at the beginning of college, very conscious of what they were eating and were doing things like limiting their portions, limiting the kinds of foods that they were eating.

AUBREY: Basically, a solid awareness of food and diet from the very start. These students may be in the minority, but it seems as if they stick together. Take GW Freshman Katie O'Toole. She says she's basically kept up the healthy habits she learned at home.

Ms. KATIE O-TOOLE: My roommate and I are actually both really similar in that like we don't, you know, like (unintelligible) for a pizza like two in the morning. But I definitely notice some people who will like start eating brownies or just like keep a stash of candy.

AUBREY: And once these mindless eating habits form, psychologist Susan Albers says they seem to be contagious.

Dr. ALBERS: You know students tend to mirror the eating patterns of the people around them. And particularly, if they're hanging out with people who are stressed, late at night, they tend to have a group think around the stress eating or eating together.

AUBREY: Stress does seem to fuel the whole phenomenon. One study done on the campus of the University of Southern California, surveyed undergrads about their levels of stress, asking questions such as: in the last month, how often have you felt anxious or how often have you felt unsure of your ability to handle personal problems or deal with change?

The researchers found that the students who perceived their levels of stress to be high were more likely to be doing a lot of night-time eating.

Susan Albers says the hormones associated with stress are part of the problem.

Dr. ALBERS: Their bodies are constantly flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone that makes them crave sugar, fat and salt.

AUBREY: Students, such as Katie O'Toole, are most likely to avoid the whole late-night eating trap. She's got other strategies to sooth her angst and de-stress. One is to unplug a little each day and take a break in between classes.

Ms. O'TOOLE: I've also done exercise classes like almost every day since I've been here, so I'm really pretty confident that I can keep myself healthy during college.

AUBREY: So for O'Toole, it's not just her eating habits and her awareness of portions and calories, but also her competence in coping and managing stress that will help keep the freshman 15, or the freshman five, at bay.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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