The closer midterms were approaching last week, the more I was reaching for my notes and textbooks sprawled out on my desk before me. I also found myself going for midnight pizza at Pilot House and a slice of my favorite pistachio cake at IndAroma I know I did not need. We’ve all been guilty of snacking more during difficult or stressful times, but what makes our bodies crave these foods that are rich in fat and sugar? People throw around the term “comfort food” but fail to realize the science behind it.
When you are feeling stressed or in danger, your body produces a hormone called cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.” This hormone causes temporary changes in the body such as an increase in heart rate, attentiveness, and energy. This emergency response system helps the body be more alert during times of stress, and it eventually has the ability to turn itself off once the stress is gone. When cortisol is sent back to the brain, it stops the body’s production of the hormone.
But what happens when it seems as though the stress cannot go away? This is known in the psychology world as “chronic stress.” When this occurs, the emergency response system does not turn itself off and can negatively affect the body. It does not stop producing cortisol, which can lead to the body using up too much energy to protect itself in times of stress. This excess of energy leads to anxiety and hyper alertness. This is where food comes in: treats high in sugars and fats give your body the energy it used up to combat stress. Fat is pretty useful for the body in numerous ways, one acting as a signal to the brain, telling it to turn off the stress response. Otherwise, the body uses up all of its energy which it needs to survive.
Snacking may help the body adjust to stress, but eventually it leads to overeating and health problems. Overeating leads to weight gain and depression, which could create a vicious cycle of more stress. Women are more likely to turn to food to handle stress while men are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke. Women are also more likely to engage in emotional eating, which is when one becomes dependent on eating to satisfy more than hunger.
The good news is that it is easy to overcome problems such as overeating, emotional eating, and stress altogether. First, it is important to be aware and realize that you are overeating due to stress. Ask yourself some questions such as: Do you eat more when you’re stressed? Do you eat to feel better? Does food make you feel safe? Do you feel out of control around food? If you have answered “yes” to at least some of these questions, you may be overly dependent on food in times of stress.
To stop overeating and beat stress, exercise. I can’t stress how important it is not just for your body but also for your mind. Personally, spending even as little as twenty minutes at Skyline on the elliptical machine makes me feel better. Take up yoga or meditation. There are free classes provided on campus at least once a week. Healthy activities such as these activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that cause us to crave food.
Stress is inevitable in college. While you’re hitting the books for your exams, try to not let it get to you. If you feel it creeping over your shoulder, be aware. If you’re craving sweets, don’t be afraid to reward yourself every now and then because you deserve it. Make sure to not overdo it, though, and replace sweets with healthy snacks if you must. Good luck, fellow Patriots!
Marano, H. E. (2003, Nov. 21). Stress and eating. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200311/stress-and-eating.
Smith, M. & Segal, J. (2013). Emotional eating. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/life/emotional_eating_stress_cravings.htm.
(2012). Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2012/February/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat.