Stress Eating is a Real Thing! Learn How You Can Be Proactive



By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

I don’t know about you, but when I look back at my years as a student I’m appalled at the way I used to eat! Eating sweets and crunchy, savory foods (like potato chips) were “life-savers” when trying to pull an all-nighter or survive exam week. Yes - stress eating was a real thing!

In fact, a recent study found evidence suggesting that increased stress during university examinations is associated with eating a poorer quality diet as in less fruits and veggies and more fast food, according to a report discussing the study.

Researchers based their results from an anonymous online survey of 232 students (between the ages of 19-22) from Ghent University in Belgium and other universities in Belgium.

“Before and after the month-long examination period in January 2017, respondents were asked to disclose their perceived stress and complete questionnaires that assessed changes to their dietary patterns and various psychosocial factors,” according to the report.

Psychosocial factors included the following:

  • Eating behavior such as whether they were emotional (for example, eating when sad), external (the sight or smell of food makes you want to eat) or restrained eaters (restricting food to prevent weight gain or promote weight loss)
  • Food choice motive.
  • Taste preference.
  • Reward/punishment sensitivity (for example, we’ve all mentally beaten ourselves up after indulging perhaps a bit too much).
  • Impulsivity.
  • Coping strategies.
  • Sedentary behavior.
  • Social support.

The students who participated in the surveys underwent a month-long examination period, and during this period most of the students found it very difficult to stick to a healthy diet. The report states that only a quarter of the students met the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 400 grams of fruits and vegetables a day. Furthermore, students revealed that they snacked more when they felt higher levels of stress.

This, of course, could all eventually lead to weight gain and health issues such as diabetes and hypertension.

This study may have taken place in Belgium, but I think it’s safe to say that many American students and young people likely operate in the same manner. This is concerning because there are alarmingly high rates of obesity amongst American youth. More younger people in the United States are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer likely as a result of a poor diet and being overweight.

According to the report, the “findings suggest that emotional eaters (who eat in response to negative emotions), external eaters (who eat in response to the sight or smell of food), sweet/fat lovers, people who are highly motivated by health (with health as a food choice motive), sensitive to reward and punishment, highly sedentary, and with higher stress levels are at greatest risk of making unhealthy food choices during this stressful time.”

Clearly stress can be very detrimental to us all by negatively impacting the quality of our diet.

And, of course, it’s not just students who face high levels of stress. We all (young or old, male or female) face stressful events - whether it’s from a demanding career, managing our finances, peer pressure at school, handling kids and personal relationships, coping with life tragedies. The list goes on.

Stress will be a constant in all of our lives, but we can be proactive in the way in which we respond to stress.

Eating processed junk foods may be tempting when you are stressed out, and that surge of sugar or pleasure you may get from the taste of that junk food may leave you feeling good for a bit. But this is very fleeting and will ultimately leave you feeling lethargic and cranky.

As we have discussed before, regularly following a pro-inflammatory diet (one in processed foods void of nutrients) may cause damage to your brain. It may even cause depression. And if you are constantly stressed out and eating poorly, you will likely never get your stress and eating under control because of the mental effects.

So remember to make an honest and good effort to include plenty of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and lean protein (from sources such as fish) into your daily diet no matter how stressed you may feel or how busy you may be.

Check out this pH Labs blog about specific nutrients and foods that may help you better cope with stress and anxiety. And consider taking a comprehensive nutrient test. You want to make sure you have an adequate and balanced amount of all the feel good nutrients found in the healthy foods you are eating.

One of the best ways to reduce stress is exercise. Find the time to exercise, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. Take a walk with your friend or coworker. This, too, will help with your stress. And always fuel your body properly for workouts.

You have to do what works for you.

I relieve stress by gardening and hiking with my dogs. Maybe for you it’s yoga, taking a spin class, playing basketball with your kid or even bird watching. Again, the list goes on! Remember, stress will come and go but our health is something we will always need if we want to live our best and healthiest lives.

In my opinion, the key to life is simple. You can only control the controllable, and diet is definitely something you can control. Diet influences so much of our experiences in life, so let’s make these experiences healthy and happy.

How do you manage your stress levels and avoid stress eating? Please join the conversation.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.