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 / Updated  / Source: TODAY
By Madelyn Fernstrom

College is a huge step: a moment in young people's lives when independence is key and they make many decisions about the future. While they may seem small, the choices surrounding food and proper nutrition are important too — and, surprisingly, much easier than you'd think.

Parting from the comfort of daily home-cooked meals can be tough. While students are aware of the best choices — an apple instead of apple pie,for instance — the situations they face don't always present the healthiest options.

Studies have shown that the proverbial “freshman 15” (the 15 pounds a student supposedly gains their first year in college) is often closer to a few pounds. But it’s important to avoid excess weight in the college years, because it’s usually permanent. That doesn't mean you have to avoid your favorite ice cream, or even that chocolate bar you've got stashed in your dorm room. Eating is not about deprivation; it’s about balance.

To trim calories, we recommend students try these easy food swaps in the dining hall or convenience store. Just five small changes will help!

Choose one slice of pepperoni pizza instead of a cheeseburger

Image: Freshly Baked Thin Crust Pepperoni and Cheese Pizza;
Freshly Baked Thin Crust Pepperoni and Cheese Pizza; background; baked; black; cheese; circle; closeup; counter; crust; cutter; delicious; delivery; dinner; eating; fast; fat; fattening; food; fresh; frozen; greasy; green; italian; italy; junk; lunch; meal; meat; melted; metal; mozzarella; pan; party; pastry; pepper; pepperoni; pie; pizza; restaurant; sauce; savory; simple; slice; snack; speed; spicy; stone; tasty; thin; tomato; vegetableShutterstock

While a grilled chicken sandwich is a healthy go-to option, a basic decision often faces students: pizza or a burger.

Even a quarter-pound (4-ounce) cheeseburger, which is now on the skimpy side of a serving size, contains around 500 calories, without any fries. The pizza has roughly 390 calories.

RELATED: Students rescue healthy food that's headed for the dumpster to feed the hungry

Stick with one slice of pizza, and pair it with a salad for balance. Swap the pepperoni for veggies (like peppers and onions). Or skip the cheese on your burger to save 100 calories per serving.

Look for beef chili instead of mac and cheese

Beef chili
Beef chiliPicasa / Patricia's Patticakes

A warm and comforting bowl of vegetable-bean soup is a nutritional powerhouse, but often the choice comes down to chili or macaroni and cheese.

Whether it’s beef chili or a mixture of meat and red beans, it’s a winner. And don’t forget “white chili,” made with skinless chicken and white beans. With around 160 calories in a one-cup serving (185 with some shredded cheese on top), it’s a protein plus.

The same serving of mac and cheese is about 300 calories. Lighten up the mac and cheese at home by preparing it with reduced fat (not nonfat) milk and cheese.

Swap a blueberry muffin for a jelly doughnut

donuts
donutsShutterstock

A plain Greek yogurt and fruit or vegetable omelet is always a great choice, but students are often pressed for time, so they look for a grab-and-go breakfast.

Don’t be fooled by a “fruit” name in a muffin; they’re usually loaded with sugar, fat, and calories (reduced fat muffins are nearly the same calories; they trim the fat by a third, but pack a similar amount of sugar). A typical muffin contains around 450 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 44 grams of sugar (that’s 10 teaspoons!).

RELATED: You don't have to go all veg to live longer, study finds

A “reduced fat” muffin is nearly the same calories and sugar, with a reduction in fat of one-third (10 grams instead of 15 grams).

In contrast, a plain or jelly doughnut weighs in at 270 calories, with the sugar reduced by almost two-thirds. While you're at it, skip that fancy latte and stick to a black coffee with milk.

Skip the lemonade and choose a sports drink

Sports drinks
Three Sports Energy Drinks On White; Shutterstock ID 76103863; PO: Brandon for Food / HealthChuck Wagner / Shutterstock

Water is the ideal drink at any time of day or night, but most students are looking for additional options. Luckily, there are dozens!

Lemonade sounds like a healthy choice, and often doesn’t taste particularly sweet, but there are usually loads of hidden sugars. Typical prepared lemonades contain nearly 300 calories and 76 grams of sugar (nearly 20 teaspoons!) in a 20-ounce serving.

A sports drink is a better choice, with about half the calories and around 75 percent less sugar in the same 20-ounce serving. Get a lemony, refreshing taste free of calories by adding a big chunk of lemon or lemon juice to water.

For any sugary drink, cut the calories in half by diluting it with water: half full-sugar drink, half water.

Stick with cookies instead of a brownie

Chocolate chip cookies
Chocolate Chip Cookies stock food dessert todayStephen Bonk / Featurepics stock

Chocolate desserts are always popular, and vary widely in calories, fat, and sugar. While treats can always be included in a balanced eating plan, it’s a matter of smart choices and portion control.

It’s tough to eat just part of a brownie — a typical large one weighs in at around 400 calories, along with 24 grams of fat and 40 grams of sugar.

Swap it for a few chocolate-sandwich cookies. At only 40 calories per cookie, even a serving of six cookies contains 240 calories, and around 10 grams of fat and 16 grams of sugar.

Try cutting the portion to three cookies and add a latte or glass of milk for the balance of protein, calcium, and vitamin D.

Share the brownie to easily cut the calories in half. Make sure you also avoid chocolate desserts with the words “double,” “premium” or “extra,” which typically adds more calories as hidden fats and sugars.

Madelyn Fernstrom is TODAY's nutrition and health editor. Follow her @drfernstrom