Many students begin each new school year with vows to get in shape and live a healthier lifestyle. Goals such as going to the gym more than twice a year, cooking food instead of eating out and loading up on veggies instead of Wings Over Athens for lunch might be key components on this year’s to-do list.
Those plans might be going well, but suddenly, it’s finals week. The strong motivation and strategic battle plan are lost in the midst of all-nighters and exams, and Big Mamma’s Burritos and Avalanche Pizza become the only two things on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What is it about exams, term papers and final projects that can upset the willpower of even the most determined students? The answer is simple: stress.
Anxiety and stress are so prominent in the everyday lives of college students that they are considered normal emotions. Unfortunately, stress can cause an array of undesirable side effects such as acne, irritability, insomnia and stiff muscles.
But what does stress have to do with those Big Mamma’s cravings? When the body starts to feel signs of persistent or chronic stress, the adrenal gland releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone (go figure), increases motivation in general, which unfortunately also includes the body’s motivation to eat. A lot. Inhaling burritos isn’t necessarily a sign of nonexistent willpower, but rather a biological reaction: a reaction that has been called “stress eating.”
Angela Bohyer, an administrative instructor and dietitian at Ohio University, explains that eating may be a way for some people to soothe negative emotions such as fatigue or stress.
“When this [emotional stress] happens, food can serve as a distraction.” Bohyer says.
The negative stress side effects don’t end there. The release of cortisol not only affects the desire to eat, but also the body’s food preferences. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean stress hormones will conveniently stir up crazy cravings for kale and spinach. Physical or emotional distress increases consumption of foods high in fat, sugar or both. In other words, the body craves comfort food. Hello, pizza.
In an interview about overall body wellness with website The Skinny Confidential, blogger, nutritionist and wellness coach Jessica Sepel emphasizes the importance of maintaining healthy stress levels. Of course, that is easier said than done. According to Sepel, high-levels of unmonitored stress can impact thyroid function and can increase the chance of gaining weight, particularly in the midsection.
That being said, there is some good news, too. Though having control over stress levels may seem nearly impossible — especially in college — having control over stress eating can actually be pretty manageable. The obvious goal is to reduce stress as a whole; meditating, exercising, dancing and listening to loud music are all ways to naturally release endorphins. As Elle Woods would say, endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t release cortisol.
But sometimes starting at the source of the problem isn’t really an option. What happens if the economics exam is tomorrow, the cortisol has already been released and it’s time to eat — now. The first step is simple: eat mindfully. Eating a third piece of pizza just to have something to furiously chew on while cramming for that exam probably isn’t the best idea. But being aware that those urges exist is the best way to avoid them. Bohyer suggests avoiding the allowance of hunger might be the key to success.
“It is best to not allow yourself to get too hungry or you may tend to overeat when food is available, especially when stress is higher,” Bohyer says.
If the hunger pains really become unbearable, opt for healthier options such as fruits and veggies. Though they might not taste as good as a burrito, they will provide more micronutrients and antioxidants to the body. Healthy eating isn’t always the easy choice, but kale and spinach will fuel an all-nighter better than beans and cheese ever will.