Annette is a freshman at Georgetown University. Next week, her parents are coming from the family home in Connecticut to visit her. Annette is considering asking them not to come "because it has hit me, and I need help."
No, not some serious illness.
The famed Freshman Fifteen.
That would be pounds, now attached to hips and rear end. Annette didn't possess them two months ago, when she arrived on campus.
Annette says she has already had to unleash her belt by a notch and give away half her jeans. Now she's worried that her parents -- and her mother in particular -- are going to hit the roof when they see the Giant Economy-Sized Annette.
She even asked if Bob Levey thought she should buy a cowbell.
"They could ring it whenever they look at me," Annette suggested. "I wouldn't have to listen to them tell me that I'm, uh, overlarge."
If it's any consolation, Annette, you have oodles of company and oodles of counter- strategies.
Health educators at Georgetown and American universities say that the Freshman Fifteen have been on the scene as long as they have.
"It seems fairly common," said Carol Day, a director in the Health Education Services office at Georgetown. "Everything completely changes for students when they get to college -- their environment, every area of their life, not the least of which is food."
Carol blamed "fast-food options" and "schedule shifts" for many of the extra pounds. When students "find themselves up half the night studying or writing papers, they order pizza for a break or a social activity. And sometimes social life involves drinking, so there are the alcohol calories, which they often don't think about adding in."
Georgetown offers nutrition counseling to any student, freshman or not, Carol said. She noted that Freshman Fifteen problems aren't the exclusive province of women. "Weight gain is a problem for both men and women," she said.
Kathy Haldeman, a health educator at AU, said that freshmen come under stresses that they've never had to handle before.
"Many people under stress do eat," she said. Freshman weight gain is "quite often more than 15 pounds," she said.
The big culprit? Dessert, Kathy said.
On campus, "there's usually dessert available every day." At home, "parents may be cooking meals, but there may not be a dessert every night."
How to fight back? The key is exercise.
"I encourage kids to sign up for phys ed classes as often as they can in college," said Katherine Tallmadge, a nutritionist who has "worked with hundreds of students" in the Washington area.
Katherine points out that joining a gym will cost serious bucks once college students are "out in the real world." But now, gym time is free. Freshman Fifteens will melt away with regular visits to stationary bikes or treadmills, Katherine emphasized.
For the mathematically inclined: Katherine estimates that "walking a mile five days a week will burn 26,000 calories and 7 1/2 pounds a year. Double that distance and you'll walk away 52,000 calories and 15 pounds."
For Annette, I can add this little bit of geographic reality. Georgetown is a hilly and fairly spread-out campus. Walking is a necessity there anyway. So doubling a typical walk is fairly easy, since Georgetown students are already putting one foot in front of the other.
As for eating habits, here are Katherine's clip-and-save hints:
1) Always choose lean meats such as turkey instead of fatty meats or fried foods.
2) Start with soup. It fills you up early in a meal so you're less tempted to gorge late in a meal.
3) Drink at least eight large glasses of water a day. No soda. No bottled lemonade. No juices.
4) Choose fresh fruit instead of vending- machine junk. Yes, it will take some planning and some shopping. But it will be worth it. For instance, an apple is at most 100 calories. An ounce of potato chips (that's about four individual chips) is 150.
5) If you're looking for a reward, choose shopping, movies, anything but snacks.
6) Be sure to get enough sleep. If you don't, you'll be much more likely to binge.
7) Don't ever eat too little, because you may compensate later in the day by eating too much.
8) Watch out for portion sizes. And watch out for "stupid calories" like gloppy salad dressings or steak sauces that are easily skipped.
Why isn't there a Sophomore Fifteen or a Junior Fifteen? Because by then, college students tend to have figured out their patterns a bit better, the experts say. They are less likely to gorge, and less likely to starve to compensate for gorges.
So, Annette, there is hope on the horizon. But it won't happen by magic. You will have to grab this problem by the scruff of the neck and plan.
For example, if you have an in-room refrigerator, stock it with veggies and low-fat dip. Also low-fat yogurt and fresh fruit. Eat breakfast every day (even if your days begin at noon).
In the cafeteria, choose a baked or broiled version of a meat, rather than a fried version. Be especially wary of pasta bars and ice cream dispensers. Grab a piece of fruit as you're leaving and stick it in your pocket, for later chomping. And be sure that you're not using food as a way to compensate for loneliness and homesickness.
If you're disciplined enough to get into a great college, you can be disciplined enough to melt away those Fifteen. Many have done it, Annette. You can, too.