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2006 Third Web Paper
4.0 = Good for the Mind, Not for the Body?
As the end of finals week approaches at Bryn Mawr, many frazzled Mawrtyrs will attest to the fact that their eating habits drastically change during midterms and finals. Seniors, in the midst of writing their theses, will often complain of increased weight gain or suppressed appetite that they claim correlates to the level of stress that they are experiencing. Regarding weight fluctuation, it is not uncommon to hear impending graduates warn underclassmen that "it's not the freshmen fifteen, it's the thesis thirty." Many Mawrtyrs can relate to coming back to their rooms from a stressful day of class and studying and mindlessly binge eating. It is no secret that college students have notoriously horrible eating habits.
Many people report of eating even when they are not hungry to begin with. Studies show that people who eat while performing other task, like studying or watching television, eat more than people without distractions because they tend to eat without realizing that quantity or quality of what they are consuming. However, every individual has different eating habits, which are categorized into two groups—those who are restrained and unrestrained eaters. The "restrained" eaters are intentionally restrictive with their diet, but are far more at risk for binging and excessive eating when distracted by stress than their unrestrained counterparts. At a recent study performed at Swarthmore College, in which half the participants were unrestrained and the other half were restrained eaters, students were asked to perform mental tasks with a bowl of snack food within reach. Findings show that the restrained group snacked on much more food during the test than the unrestrained eaters did. Essentially, the response of these two groups to food during periods of concentration is quite different (2).
For many individuals, however, mindless eating is a way of coping with feelings of pressure or sadness. Indulging in "comfort food" as a way to alleviate stress is often common in a collegiate setting, where incoming freshmen are thrust into a brand-new environment and seniors are preoccupied with advanced research and thoughts of life after college. Dietary restraint, a theory that is extremely applicable to Bryn Mawr students, "conceptualizes individuals as differing on a spectrum of dietary concern and self-awareness about body image and weight; the relatively highest prevalence rates for dietary restraint are found in young women" (1).
Several theories exist as to why some people have the tendency to over-eat. It has been suggested that binging provides us with a temporary reprieve from stress and re-directs our anxiety towards food. These ideas postulate that food, however, that food influences stress recovery in different ways for restrained and unrestrained eaters. The theory that re-attributing our anxiety towards binging does not completely alleviate our stress, however, for it only serves to re-direct it to a different source. When we experience periods of great emotional stress, our bodies produce hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When the period of stress is over, cortisol increases appetite so that the carbohydrates and fat that should have been burned was replaced. This is due to our biological history, for when our ancestors were under stress, they needed these chemicals to increase their heart rate and tense their muscles so that they could be alert enough to fight (4). Our ancestors were much more physically active than we are today, but we have had the same hormones for hundreds of years, which tell
us to eat even if we had been sedentary a whole day studying at a desk.
While some foods do indeed have a temporarily calming effect due to certain chemicals that they release in your body, the ones that we commonly reach for when we are tense actually increase our level of irritability. These foods are often called "pseudostressors" or "sympathomimetics" because they imitate the sympathetic nervous system, which is involved in stress reactions. For instance, foods which have refined sugar and carbohydrates, are not easily processed by the body. Additionally, consuming a large amount of sugar in a short time span results in hypoglycemia, which is characterized by headaches, anxiety, and irritability. Sugar induces raised blood glucose levels, leading to insulin resistance and more produces more strain on the pancreas. Processed foods, such as common "junk" or snack foods, contain synthetic products, such as Sodium Yellow and Tartrazine, that are believed to cause stress. Artificial colors are actually believed to incite the central nervous system, contributing to hyperactivity and allergies in children (3).
Therefore, the prevalence of obesity in our society might have to do in part with the amount of environmental and self-imposed stress that Americans experience on a daily basis. Healthy eating and exercise can help to alleviate our daily anxiety, but there is a definite biological explanation that rationalizes why we are so quick to reach for that bag of cookies or potato chips. Though food consumption can certainly temporarily gratify our senses, stress-eating does not successfully combat that problem that is causing us to eat.
1)Journal of Behavioral Medicine, experiment on eating habits
2)MedicineNet, guide on healthy living
3)Better Nutrition, article on food and stress
4)Overweight website, article on food and stress
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