A group of college students pose for a photo together. They sit on a long bench in front of a brick wall.
Going off to college can be an exciting time. You make new friends and have the freedom to choose from a variety of foods. Heed these easy tips to make sure those choices don’t snowball into extra pounds by winter break. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s no myth. The average college student is likely to gain some weight in the first year living on campus.

How does it happen? The stress is high, cafeterias overflow with calorie-laden options and daily routines are uprooted.

Eating an extra 250 calories a day adds up to 15 pounds in the course of a 30-week school year. Make it 500 extra calories, and you’ll pack on plenty of pounds before semester break.

Although it’s been 10 years since Spectrum Health dietitian Holly Dykstra, MA, RD, received her undergraduate degree from Western Michigan University, she speaks from experience.

“I gained about 15 pounds,” she said. “It’s mostly because there’s such a big change in your routine as well as your eating habits. But there are ways to prevent it.”

She offered some handy tips to college freshman or anyone who wants to keep the waistline under control:

Tip No. 1: Eat three solid meals a day.

“Even if breakfast has to be eaten on the way to class or in class, it’s really important,” Dykstra said. “If you don’t eat in the morning, your body and mind don’t have fuel to function on.”

Plus, if you skip a meal it’s really easy to overindulge later in the day.

During these three meals, eat slowly and pay attention to your hunger level—and then stop eating before getting overstuffed, Dykstra said.

When you eat also matters, she said. Studies show that a person who eats earlier in the day will have a smaller waistline and lower body mass index.

Tip No. 2: Choose the good stuff.

Dykstra said to aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. One way is to eat fruit with breakfast, salad as a side with lunch, and load half of your dinner plate with veggies.

Another suggestion: Eat your fruit or veggies before beginning the rest of your meal. You’ll feel satisfied more quickly, so you’ll be less likely to surrender to the temptation of the dessert selection or the ice cream machine.

Also, watch out for sneaky calories. There’s sugar hiding in lots of breakfast choices and fast food options. You’ll find high fructose corn syrup in lots of salad dressings and energy bars.

And remember that whole grains are always a more nutritious choice than refined flour—so choose whole grain bread over white bread. This will provide you with more sustainable energy throughout your day.

Tip No. 3: Drink plenty of water.

Yes, water. Not soda and not energy beverages or sports drinks, which can add a lot of calories.

Aim for 64 ounces a day, because if you’re dehydrated, you may reach for food, Dykstra said.

Her other recommendation: Drink a glass of water before you eat a meal. You’ll feel full more quickly and eat fewer calories.

Tip No. 4: Get enough sleep.

“Studies indicate when you don’t get adequate sleep, your body’s production of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger, increases,” Dykstra said. “You might actually feel hungrier if you’re not sleeping enough.”

And despite those temptations to eat late in the day, skip the bedtime snack—even during that grueling study session the night before a big test.

Tip No. 5: Be active.

It’s math. If you’re eating more calories than you’re expending, you’ll gain weight. And it takes a lot of exercise to make up for extra helpings of mashed potatoes.

Exercise may help your grades, too.

“Not only does exercise burn extra calories, it also improves your energy level and helps your brain work better,” Dykstra said.