Your Diet on Stress

By Jessica Roberts

A Little Stress Doesn’t Hurt, Right?
We all have a favorite comfort food, that one we turn to when we have two exams to study for, three essays to write, and one trip to Mars to plan. Okay, maybe not the last one but the point is there is a lot to do. When this happens, we dive our spoons into that tub of ice cream or shove our hand into that big bag of chips as our panic levels begin to rise. College is a stressful time for students, and many times this stress causes us to unconsciously and consciously change our eating behaviors, which in turn can impact our overall health. I believe that at Colorado State University we can change this, whether it is through advocacy or simply eating together.

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Photo 1. Will Ferrell in Elf.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, when individuals experience short-term stress, they eat less because the adrenal glands in the body secrete the stress hormone epinephrine, which causes temporary suppression of hunger. However, when individuals experience long-term stress, the adrenal glands produce a different type of stress hormone called cortisol, which has been found to actually increase appetite. The problem is that the stressors of college seem to be never-ending. Just when we think that we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, one of our classes will throw another daunting group project our way. This means that throughout the school year, many of us are constantly producing the long-term stress hormone cortisol as college and our outside lives continuously present us with challenges to overcome.

There are many studies that have been published on the correlation between increased levels of stress, eating behaviors, and overall health. A study done in 2016 by researchers of several universities in Brazil surveyed the eating habits of thirty college students3. Their results demonstrated students with higher perceived stress on the Perceived Stress Scale had higher rates of binge eating and emotional eating when compared to the group of students that had lower levels of perceived stress3. Another study published in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reiterates the correlation between high levels of stress and eating behaviors with relation to overall health5. In this study, the perceived stress levels, weight, body mass index (BMI), and eating behaviors of 319 college students were assessed over their freshman and sophomore years of college5. The results found students with higher stress levels had higher BMIs than students with lower levels of stress when both groups had the same eating habits5. These results demonstrate that even when we try to regulate our eating, the stress produced in our lives can still influence our health.

Even at CSU?
While the two research studies mentioned in the paragraph above may not concern students at CSU, from what I have seen and experienced in the four months I have been here, the results of the aforementioned studies seem applicable to our campus. The way our dining halls and meal system are designed, it is not always easy to exhibit self-constraint and practice mindful eating. With the ability to eat as much as we want at four of the five dining halls, it is easy to allow heightened stress levels to influence the amount of food we consume. I have witnessed one of my friends eat five bowls of pasta in one sitting before a test on public finance and I, myself, have been guilty of going back to get another dessert when I was craving sugar before a large chemistry exam. This is not to say that all students at CSU do not have control over their eating habits; however, from what I have experienced so far, it is not uncommon. Another issue with our current meal system set-up arises in the Rams Horn Express and Durrell Express dining centers. These types of dining experiences foster a culture of eating food on-the-go and alone when students are short on time for a sit-down meal. Although both of these locations offer healthy options such as sandwiches, vegetable trays, salads, and snacks of nuts with boiled eggs, there is a much wider assortment of chips, candy, and processed snacks from which to choose. As stated in an article in the journal Nutrition in 2007, when students are stressed they are more likely to gravitate towards more calorie-dense foods containing high amounts of sugar and fats, and our express centers make it easy to do so8. The way both our dining halls and express centers are designed, college students at CSU may find it easier to eat portions much larger than usual or simply eat nutrient deficient snacks in lieu of meals due to the stress and time constraints of college.

Stress vs. Mindful Eating at CSU
While many of us as students are aware of our eating habits, many times we do not reflect on how the stress of our classes and lives are affecting our eating behaviors. The CSU community should advocate for a student body that is more informed about the relationship between stress and emotional eating and how more mindful eating habits can be implemented in our lives. The first step towards achieving this goal is creating more awareness about mindful eating programs that are already in place at our university. One of these programs is an eight-week course on weight management and mindful eating that is listed on the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center website. The description for this program explains how it seeks to help people develop a foundation of making healthy food choices. It is great that programs like this are available; however, they are not free and many college students are likely not willing to pay for additional programs when they are already trying to save money to cover tuition and other expenses.

A more inexpensive way for students and staff alike to learn about the importance of controlling eating changes due to stress is to create flyers and posters that discuss this topic. These posters would contain information and statistics about the consequences of stress-eating and provide ideas for alleviating stress that do not revolve around food consumption, such as exercising or petting animals. In the Braiden and Foundry dining halls, I have noticed the Housing and Dining Services post signs along the walls that display graphics and details concerning various nutrition topics such as hydration as seen in Photo 2 below. However, I have not seen any information regarding the implications of stress-eating. If signs were posted and flyers were handed out in areas with heavy foot traffic such as the plaza and the academic buildings, I believe that the message to eat more mindfully would reach a larger audience of students and staff than the ones that are currently placed in the dining halls.

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Photo 2. Hydration Poster in the Foundry Dining Hall (Roberts, 2018).10

Eating with Others is Life-Changing
If we are to truly inform the CSU population about the correlation between stress, eating behavior, and overall health, we should not only focus on what is eaten at meals but also how it is eaten. An article on the website Brain World synthesizes the findings of several research articles to explain the benefits of eating with others and the harms of eating alone. It explains how the results of one study published in the journal Nutrition Research and Practice in 2014 and another in the journal Appetite in 2015 demonstrate that people who eat alone tend to have poorer eating habits than those who eat with others. The article also discusses how eating a meal with other people can alter heart rate variability, which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system that allows people to go into a more relaxed state. It would be helpful if more students and staff at CSU knew about statistics such as these because it would promote more shared meals and potentially lower stress levels.

Let’s face it, we all deal with stress and sometimes that stress leads us to make choices that are not the best for our overall health. However, if we begin to implement more programs that increase awareness of stress and eating behaviors and the power of eating together, we can create a healthier and happier CSU community by the year 2020.

About the Author
Jessica Roberts is a freshman honors student at Colorado State University studying neuroscience and Spanish.

References:
1.Favreau, J. (2003, November). Elf. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrSdH0jsMnM

2. Harvard Health Publishing. (2018). Why stress causes people to overeat. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat

3. Penaforte, F., Matta, N., & Japur, C. (2016). Association between stress and eating behavior in university students. Demetra, 11(1), 225-237.

4. Cohen, S. (1994). Perceived Stress Scale. Retrieved from https://www.mindgarden.com/132-perceived-stress-scale

5. Gropper, S.S., Lord, D., Watts, A., Arsiwalla, D., & Simmons, K.P. (2013). Perceived Stress, Eating Regulation Behaviors, and Body Mass Index, Body Weight and Percent Body Fat Relationships over the First Two Years of College. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(9), A36.

6. CSU Housing and Dining Services: Explore Dining Centers. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://housing.colostate.edu/dining/explore/

7. Cheung, L, (n.d.). Definition of Mindful Eating. Retrieved from https://www.lexiconoffood.com/definition/definition-mindful-eating

8. Torres, S.J., & Nowson, C.A.. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition, 23(11), 887-894.

9. Healthy You: Weight Management and Mindful Eating. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nutritioncenter.chhs.colostate.edu/programs-services/healthy-you-interactive.aspx

10. Survival Mastery. (n.d.). Hydration: Key Moments to Stay Hydrated. [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved from http://survival-mastery.com

11. Visnic, N. (2018). Never Eat Alone! The Benefits of Eating With Others. Retrieved from https://brainworldmagazine.com/never-eat-alone-the-benefits-of-eating-with-others/

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