Effects of stress on college students’ eating habits

By Olivia Shackleton

Olivia Shackleton
May 5, 2018 · 8 min read
Pictured above is the Inn Between at John Carroll University. Photo by Olivia Shackleton.

It is nearing 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, far past the time the cafeteria closes for the day. Flocks of students rush in and out of the Inn Between in the basement of John Carroll University’s student center.

Walking to greet her friends at a table outside the restaurant, a young woman with curly, brown hair, wearing a bright crimson sweatshirt, holds a lemonade bottle in one hand and sour gummy worms in the other. She sits down, immediately pulls out her laptop and begins furiously typing away, while eating her sour gummy worms. Within 20 minutes, a young man joins the table and they chat about upcoming exams and essays. The word “stressed” is thrown out various times throughout the conversation. Before sitting with the group of friends, the young man walks into the Inn Between and returns with a bag of potato chips and a soft drink. Following his friend’s example, he too pulls out his laptop and begins working.

A pattern emerges. Students walk into the Inn Between, grab some sort of unhealthy option such as gummy worms, chicken tenders and fries, a milkshake or chips. Then they get a table outside, pull out their laptops and notebooks and get to work. As they become engrossed in their studies, they continue to eat mindlessly.

Although this depicts one evening at one university, these scenes are common at most colleges. Snacking, binge eating, eating late into the night, fad diets and other issues regarding eating habits become more evident in college students due to the amount of stress they face.

“Being a R.A. [Resident Assistant], doing schoolwork and having an I.T. job while being involved in other activities, such as intramural sports, can be very stressful. The way it affects my eating habits is during the day I will be so stressed that I don’t really get hungry until 4 a.m., when I get major cravings. I typically go for either Kit Kats or sunflower seeds when I am having cravings,” said Davey Jenkins, a junior studying supply chain management. He explained that he finds himself eating more sweet and salty foods during the early morning hours, after not eating much throughout the day.

Jenkins continued, “My insomnia really stresses me out and causes a lot of problems. My R.A. job gives me a lot of good opportunities — including creating bulletin boards, fostering community on the floor, hosting programs and sitting duty nights — but it is a lot of work. My I.T. job starts at 6 a.m. Along with balancing school, it is very stressful.”

A study by professors from the Department of Nutrition at Auburn University revealed that despite the popular slogan that signals a preoccupation with the issue, “freshman 15” weight gain can be observed throughout all four years of college. “A unique contribution of this study is its evaluation of body composition and shape changes over the four year college period. Among both the females and males, the observed weight gain consisted of primarily gains in fat mass,” the Auburn study reports. The study follows students from the beginning of their freshman year to the conclusion of their senior year. It tracks how much weight is gained within the four years, observes if the weight is fat and measures the increase in the circumference of their waists.

Auburn’s study determined that there is a trend in adolescents becoming obese while they are still in young adulthood.

“The findings from this study confirm this trend and suggest that an additional concern may be the increasing prevalence of those with normal BMI [body mass index] but perhaps excessive adiposity [obesity]. Additional health promotion strategies on college campuses are clearly needed,” the study concludes.

“College students tend to forget to schedule time to eat. This results in them eating quick and easy food, which is typically higher calorie food,” explained Karin Palmer, a registered nutritionist who visits John Carroll’s campus on a regular basis.

In addition to this study, scientists from the University of Northern Iowa found that there is a significant correlation between stress and eating, specifically with college sophomores. “College students who regulate their eating behaviours for health reasons exhibit higher BMI [body mass index] and body fat when they report higher levels of perceived stress. Health promotion programs for college students need to target education efforts towards stress reduction and healthy eating behaviours,” reports the study, published in the journal Stress and Health in 2018.

Betsy Love, a sophomore business student, discussed how stress affects her food choices “My eating changes based on my stress levels. When I have exams, essays and group projects all happening simultaneously, I find myself eating way more cereal and chocolate. I think that is due to convenience, plus I crave it more when I am stressed.”

The fluctuation in weight observed in college students may have several causes. However, one factor that is correlated to weight changes is increased stress. A study conducted by researchers from University College London’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health found that when students are under stress, there is a significant effect on their eating habits.

“Most participants reported that stress influenced the overall amount of food that they consumed, with approximately equal numbers reporting eating more (42 percent) and eating less (38 percent),” states the report. College students are warned to watch their weight, especially to avoid gaining the “freshman 15.”

Yet changes in weight may also come from not eating enough. Not eating due to stress is a reality many college students face as well.

“I don’t feel hungry because I’m too worried about everything else. I am too preoccupied that I forget to eat. I also feel a knot in my stomach caused by stress which also makes eating difficult,” explained Mackenzie Clinger, a sophomore studying professional writing and business.

In addition to studying the amount and frequency of food intake, the study by University College London also focuses on the types of foods consumed by students under stress. The study explains, “In the sample as a whole the foods most frequently reported as being eaten in greater quantity were sweets and chocolate (70 percent), cakes and biscuits (60 percent) and savoury snacks (48 percent). Foods least likely to be eaten in greater quantity were fruit and vegetables (19 percent) and meat and fish (9 percent).”

In other words, stressed-out students decrease their intake of healthy foods, while increasing consumption of sweets and comfort foods.

“I do tend to eat more salty foods when I am stressed. Just last week I ate a whole, large bag of Doritos in two days by myself,” continued Clinger.

Although there are various factors that affect students’ weight, one aspect that contributes to fluctuations is the amount of stress students are enduring. Researchers find that being under stress does influence the amount of weight students gain and lose, depending on the eating habits and food choices during stressful times.


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Olivia Shackleton

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Reporting on health and environmental issues by John Carroll University students

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