May 1, 2017

Stress, Eating and Stress-Eating

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If you type “most stressed colleges” into Google, you’ll find Cornell at the top of pretty much every list. Trying to juggle prelims, papers, projects and extracurriculars does not make for a very zen environment, even though Ithaca is somewhat isolated and has pretty waterfalls.

The buffet-style dining halls and the endless availability of snacks on campus don’t make it too easy to avoid food as an effective stress relief strategy. Trust me, my go-to snack last week consisted of alternating between salt ‘n’ vinegar chips and M&Ms for every sentence I typed. It was a 12-page paper. They were family size bags. However, stress is, on its own, detrimental to a person’s health, and eating to combat stress just makes it worse.

Stress causes a hormonal response, specifically one involving cortisol. Cortisol has been dubbed the “stress hormone” because it is involved in the “fight or flight” response when a person experiences a stressor. Cortisol in small amounts is normal, and its levels return to normal when the stressor has been removed. It’s when the stress lingers that the issues start to arise.

Cortisol causes metabolic dysfunction by inhibiting glucose uptake so that it the glucose can be readily used by the body. This causes cells to feel starved, triggering hunger signals to the brain. Because of this, you stay up until 4 a.m., and you distract yourself from the feeling of being overwhelmed by eating a handful of Goldfish or a peanut butter sandwich or a Bomber pizza from Sammy’s (which I highly recommend, but not at 4 a.m.) while simultaneously drinking some caffeinated beverage that has more grams of sugar than any liquid should contain.

When stress-eating occurs regularly, it makes it a lot easier to consume an excessive amount of calories. Most late-night snacks don’t consist of foods that nutrition majors would approve of, like low-fat yogurt with granola, carrots and hummus or apple slices dipped in no more than a serving size of peanut butter (oh yeah, it actually is possible not to eat the whole jar at once). They tend to consist of carb-rich, sugary and/or super salty things that sit on the shelf in Jansen’s for the whole semester. I’m sorry, but Little Debbie isn’t going to help you write your annotated bibliography with at least 15 references. With this extra calorie intake comes all of the illnesses related to unhealthy weight gain and chronically elevated cortisol levels. These include diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular disease and immune system suppression.

Stress eating at odd hours is going to happen, especially in a place that’s consistently listed among America’s most stressful colleges. However, it is important to do so responsibly. First and foremost, find an effective way to manage your stress that doesn’t involve food. Listen to music, watch an episode of The Office, go for a walk and look at the pretty waterfalls, work out at Teagle (my favorite place), do yoga or hang out with your best friend. If you’ve tried something else and the stress still drives you to food, try to be a little more mindful. While I am very much aware that reaching for a bag of snap peas or eating the nutrition major-approved snacks listed above may not be so realistic when you have 200 more pages to read, it is definitely possible to monitor how many fun-sized Snickers bars you’ve had. Instead of blindly reaching into a bag of chips, pour some out so you can see how many you’re actually eating. Then try to eat them over an extended period of time or after you’ve read so many pages instead of inhaling them all at once and reaching for more.

If you’re still needing a snack to keep you going during odd hours or even during regular business hours, Jansen’s Market in Noyes has string cheese, yogurt, handy dandy cups of hummus with pretzels or carrot, and the ingredients for a peanut butter sandwich. Libe Cafe in Olin Library has yogurt and bowls of soup that you can heat up in the microwave. These places are both open pretty late, but if you need something after 1 a.m., the 7-11 in Collegetown is open 24 hours and has snack packs with nuts and cheese, fresh fruit and little cups of guacamole that are just perfectly portioned.

If you’re still feeling stressed, there are also multiple resources on campus that are more than willing to provide help and support. Let’s Talk is a walk-in service in Klarman Hall where you can talk with counselors about any issues you may be facing. And if you just need to talk some stuff out with peers, Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service in Willard Straight Hall lets you just say whatever and they listen.

Using these resources can help relieve some of the stress that accumulates during the semester and reduce health risks associated with chronically elevated cortisol levels. These risks also include the temptation to overeat, causing an unhealthy weight gain and increasing probability of obesity-related illnesses.