Preparing for college can be both exciting and stressful — especially for a first time student.

Cheri Collier MS, RD, LD, MPA, Nutritionist (MetroHealth Medical Center, Cleveland, Ohio) has some important things for you to keep in mind to make sure that first year isn’t too stressful on your waistline.

Avoid Weight Gain

We’ve all heard of the “freshman 15.” Many of us know someone returning home for the summer after their first year of college with a few extra pounds in their “trunk” — and it’s not new clothes. Here are some ways to help keep off those unwanted pounds:

• Do not skip meals. It’s so easy to run out to class early in the morning and sit through a few lectures without eating. By the time you’re done, you aren’t eating your first meal until the afternoon. This type of eating pattern can throw your metabolism (the way you burn calories) off track. Wake up early for breakfast or take something with you to class. The calories and energy make note taking a lot easier and you might actually stay awake during class!

• If you are not on the university food plan, buy fruits and vegetables in season and avoid too many convenience foods. “Fast food” is often loaded with fat, sugar, and salt.

• Try eating dinner three hours before you go to sleep. Eating too close to bedtime can pack on extra pounds and will make it difficult for you to get a good night’s sleep.

• Avoid inadequate sleep — it can lead to poor food choices the next day. If you’re tired, you’ll spend most of the day eating lots of sugary foods or drinking caffeinated or sweetened beverages to boost your energy level to help you stay awake.

Balance Pizza and Alcohol with Better Choices

When you find yourself overwhelmed with an abundance of food and alcohol-related activities, here are some tips to help you break even and avoid excess calories.

• For those 21 and over, a serving of an alcoholic beverage is a 12-ounce beer (140 calories), one-ounce of liquor (calories vary), and a six-ounce wine (160 to 255 calories). Excessive intake leads to obesity and can be hazardous to your health.

• Choose a sugar-free sparkling water, seltzer water, light beer, or a mixed drink made with a sugar-free soda. The ready-made specialty beverages are often full of calories. For example, a typical wine cooler can contain as much as 240 calories for a 12-ounce.

• If pizza is on the menu, look for thin crust or choose one with veggie toppings. Remember a normal slice of cheese pizza contains 300 calories and 11-grams of fat. Think of that before you reach for that second — or third piece.

• Select fiber-rich fruit and vegetables with a low fat dip such as hummus, yogurt, or low fat dressing. You will fill up quickly and obtain extra nutrients without all of the calories. Remember to watch the fat: two tablespoons of ranch dip has approximately 145 calories and 16-grams of fat.

• Choose salsa or guacamole over cheese dips if nachos are on the menu.

• Try wraps with lean meats and vegetables in place of burgers and pretzels instead of fries.

• Avoid those fried appetizer favorites (wings, mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers). Some better snacks include three handfuls of natural or light popcorn, one handful of nuts such as walnuts or almonds, three ounces of cheese, or five to six whole wheat crackers.

• Specialty coffee drinks may be inviting but they’re often full of excess calories and fat. Some tips: avoid mochas and ask for non-fat milk or a sugar substitute (both cut calories in half). Another idea is to split one drink with a friend. That automatically cuts your calories in half.

Incorporate Vitamins & Minerals into Your Diet

Vitamins and minerals are important in maintaining healthy vision, strong bones, energy, and in preventing illness.

• Fiber rich foods (such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains like apples, broccoli, brown rice) help maintain a healthy digestive system and provide an abundance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (nutrients that are essential for good health). Try to include five or more fruits and vegetables a day.

• Choose low fat dairy products such as 1 percent or skim milk, low fat cheese, yogurt or pudding. For lactose intolerance, choose dairy-free products such as soy milk or cheese.

• If you are starting a vegan diet, check with a dietitian about maintaining adequate intakes of iron, zinc, and calcium. You may need a multivitamin as a supplement.

• Lack of iron can lead to fatigue, irritability, poor memory, and difficulty learning.

Exercise

Extra pounds often creep up after a long semester of late-night meals, chronic snacking, and hours of studying. If you are not a member of a university sports team you might want to try some of these tips to increase activity.

• Try intramural sports teams.

• Take weight training, tennis, or another physical education class as an elective.

• Try doing volunteer work through your college or university on the weekends such as recycling, packing boxes at a food bank, yard work, painting, etc. It will probably make you feel good in more ways than one.

• Look for an exercise class or gather some students in your dorm and start your own exercise group.

• Avoid driving across campus to class. Walking to class is great exercise. And if you’re carrying your books or a backpack, that’s like walking with weights and burns even more calories.

Studies show that a poor diet has actually been linked to poor academic performance. So taking good care of yourself may be the first step toward getting on the Dean’s list!

• For more back to school tips, click over >>

Cheri L. Collier MS, RD, LD, M.P.A. works with infants, children and adults, and serves as Nutrition Services Manager for the Centers for Community Health at MetroHealth Medical Center, Cleveland, Ohio. She has been the principal investigator for many research projects on clinical nutrition. Areas of expertise include family/prenatal counseling, pregnancy, weight loss, eating disorder management, nutrition throughout the lifecycle (infants to older adults), and chronic disease management (diabetes and cardiovascular disease). Cheri currently serves as an adjunct professor at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine, Department of Nutrition and consults with the Ohio Department of Corrections.