Stress levels feed unhealthy eating habits

With a poor dining and exercising regimen, Carnegie Mellon students are sitting at the bottom of the fitness grading curve, according to
Men’s Fitness.

In addition, the campus was ranked seventh in the Princeton Review’s “Their Students Never Stop Studying” category, suggesting that the campus
community’s stress level have some connection to students’ eating habits.

In a study carried out by the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds in the UK from 2003 to 2005, researchers found that a high stress level is associated with fluctuation in food intake levels, as well as changes in food choices and eating patterns.

“Some people will want to eat more, and some people’s appetites will completely disappear,” said Paula Martin, a registered dietician who works with Student Health Services. “We are especially concerned about students who avoid eating when they get stressed.”

According to Martin, a lack of caloric intake hinders cognitive abilities like memory, leads to unhealthy weight loss, and drastically weakens the immune system.

An individual who eats more when stressed tends to eat quickly, without experiencing the food. A distracted multi-tasker usually overeats since he or she is disconnected with the feeling of hunger and fullness.

The study also narrowed down groups of people whose diets make them vulnerable in stressful situations, including dieters, emotional eaters who eat to feel better, external eaters who eat without intuiting fullness, and chronic overeaters.

Aside from these traits, stress-induced snacking seems to affect females much more than males. In a high-stress situation, such as the exam-preparation period, researchers believe that female students will eat sugary and fattening snacks significantly more frequently than male students.

“Chocolate — I have to treat myself to chocolate when I’m stressed just to make myself feel better about the situation,” said sophomore psychology major Shelly Kucherer.

Kucherer indulges in the sweet fix when her stress meter skyrockets, but she does not blame the organic chemistry or physics exam for her snacking habits.

“Let’s be honest. We are at CMU. We are all a little bit of overachievers,” she said, adding that she is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. “So it’s not just CMU’s workload; it has a lot to do with us, too.”

Kucherer’s perfectionist tendencies might make her more prone to snacking. According to an article published in Stress and Health, the journal of the
International Society for the Investigation of Stress, perfectionists’ preferences shift to high-calorie foods when they are stressed.

The UK study found that females prefer foods high in sugar and fat — including chocolate and ice cream — while males tend to have less of a sweet tooth, indulging instead in high-fat, high-fiber, and low-quality foods such as potato chips and french fries.

“I eat junk food when I’m busy and I can’t really sit down and eat something healthy, which usually takes time to make or even find around here,” said Daniel Lee, a senior in business administration.

Although Lee observes stress-induced changes in his eating habits, he does not entirely blame his workload for the momentary change. He said he only eats junk food on “special occasions,” such as when he crams for an exam.

According to Jeff Beyer in Counseling and Psychological Services, students under stress will go for the first thing that is available to them.

“It’s gotta be right there,” Beyer said. “The food is only consumed as a distraction, and students will keep on snacking because they want to repeat that moment of high.”

The reason that stressed students picks greasy foods could be that they are emotionally malnourished, lacking sleep, not exercising, or socially isolated. Seeking to take control of the situation, they will likely keep eating although the food will make them feel worse.

“Food is one aspect of many intricately related parts such as sleep, activity level, interpersonal relationships, and relationship with yourself,” Beyer said. “You have to pay equal attention to all these aspects when dealing with stress.”

Beyer identified the independence of college life as a major psychological stressor. For most first-years as well as some upperclassmen, the freedom is overwhelming. Students are often sleep-deprived because they think they can “steal free time from their sleep,” he said.

“Students tend to think they are not like everyone else,” Martin said. “It is like a bragging right to function without sleep, but it does catch up with you.”
Beyer expressed similar concerns, noting that long-term sleep deprivation could lead to decreased productivity and overall alertness, as well as emotional issues.

“Be mindful of what you are doing to your body in all regions — make a conscious effort toward healthy food, quality sleep, and good social relationships,” said Beyer. “The better you take care of yourself, the more likely you’ll feel at your best.”