Stress and Eating Disorder in Young People

Table of Content

What is Stress?

Stress is the physical and mental response of the body to any negative or positive changes. It is not the events that cause us stress but rather our response to it. \cite{The University of St. Andrews, 2020}. Stress overall is not bad because a little stress is needed to perform our tasks optimally while no stress leads to boredom. Generally, when we speak of stress, we only focus on the negative part of it and completely abandon the thought of positive stress. Based on Dr. Han Selye’s work, Dr. Lazarus in his study explained that there is difference in positive and negative stress. Positive stress or Eustress are the ones that energize us to do things differently. It is short termed and is perceived as within our coping capabilities. In contrast to it, negative stress or Distress causes more collateral affect on people than Eustress.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Mills, H., Reiss, N. and Dombeck, M., 2008. Types of stressors (Eustress vs. distress). Retrieved on January, 17, p.2010.]

How Stress Affects Students?

Several factors contribute in causing stress in human life. According to the data published by the American Institute of Stress in Aug 2019, every age group experience stress in their life but the individuals of 18-33 age groups were found to be the most stressed. Usually new university students have to think about different factors which lead them to stress, anxiety and even depression. [footnoteRef:3] Along with high grades; other potential sources such as unclear assignments, deadlines, pressure of combining paid work and study, difficulty in organizing work, poor housing, adjusting to life in a new environment and even country, difficulties with personal relationships, etc. contributes in causing the negative stress in the students. \cite{Ross S, Neibling B, Heckert T (1999) Sources of stress among college students. College Student Journal 33: 312-317.} In order to relieve their stress, they rely on more sedentary stress management techniques than other generations, such as listening to music, surfing the internet or going online, laying awake at night due to stress and, either eating more unhealthy foods or not eating at all.[footnoteRef:4] It is directly affecting the eating and sleeping habits causing adverse affect on the student health. [3: Ross S, Neibling B, Heckert T (1999) Sources of stress among college students. College Student Journal 33: 312-317.] [4: Anderson, N.B., Belar, C.D., Breckler, S.J., Nordal, K.C., Ballard, D.W., Bufka, L.F. and Wiggins, K., 2015. Stress in America: Paying with our health. American Psychological Association, pp.1-19.]

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Why do Students Switch to Eating Disorder During Stress?

One important variable is using of food by individuals to cope with stress and emotions. A coping mechanism of eating has been recognized for the improvement and dealing with stress and emotions that is either by under eating or overeating.[footnoteRef:5] The energy consumption vary in a same person depending on the emotion they are dealing with (Macht, 2008).Generally young adults tend to switch to overeating on days of high negative emotions leading to overweight and obesity. According to the World Health Organization 2020 factsheet, the prevalence of obesity is tripled since 1975. More than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were found to be overweight of which over 650 million were obese in 2016.[footnoteRef:6] A vital role in obesity is played by the selection of type of food and the amount of food consumed during stress. Conner et al. (1999) found that high levels of stress was associated with both increased consumption of sweets, saturated fat, dense foods as snacks and decreased overall calories food intake by adults. This statement was also supported by Wardle et al. and Oliver et al. (2000). In a separate study, Steptoe et al. found that individuals were eating fast food more frequently when reported with greater number of events, thoughts, or situations inducing negative feeling such as annoyance, irritation, worry or frustration. While considering all these, it can be derived that people tend to switch to more palatable and dense food when dealt with stressed. [5: Geliebter A, Aversa A (2003) Emotional eating in overweight, normal weight, and underweight individuals. Eat Behav 3: 341-347. ] [6: World Health Organization [WHO] (2020). Obesity and Overweight. Available at:

Ben-Avi, N., Toker, S. and Heller, D., 2018. “If stress is good for me, it’s probably good for you too”: Stress mindset and judgment of others’ strain. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 74, pp.98-110.

Akkermann, H. S. (2017). Positive and negative emotional eating have different associations with overeating and binge eating: Construction and validation of the Positive-Negative Emotional Eating Scale. Appetite , 116, 423-430.

Fong, M., Li, A., Hill, A.J., Cunich, M., Skilton, M.R., Madigan, C.D. and Caterson, I.D., 2019. Mood and appetite: Their relationship with discretionary and total daily energy intake. Physiology & behavior, 207, pp.122-131.]

High calorie dense foods that individuals tend to consume during stressful times contribute to the increasing trend of obesity. Past research within the adult population concluded that stress-induced eaters are not only consuming foods higher in sugar and fat content but also their portion sizes have increased. In a study conducted by Laitinen et al. (2002), stress-driven eaters and drinkers ate sausages, pizza, hamburgers, and chocolate more often than those who were not stress driven eaters. On repeated consumption of these foods and alcoholic beverages, it can account for long-term weight gain.[footnoteRef:7] In the prevention of obesity, it is important to distinguish the appropriate solutions towards the consumption of these foods. [7: McCrory MA, Fuss PJ, McCallum JE, Yao M, Vinken AG, et al. (1999) Dietary variety within food groups: Association with energy intake and body fatness in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr 69: 440-447. ]

A study by Zellner, et al. (2006) reported that stressed women ate more unhealthy food than women who are not stressed, while consumption of unhealthy food was comparatively higher in unstressed men than the men in the stress group. In 2007, a survey was conducted in UK to examine the result of weight gain in first year university students after reviewing the result of American students. Upon logistic regression analysis, it was demonstrated that the association of stress and risk of weight gain was high and most common in women.[footnoteRef:8] Similar survey was conducted in University of Bahrain in 2019 where the result was different than before as majority of the students were found under eating during negative emotional states.[footnoteRef:9] Women tend to overeat or binge-eat more depending on the severity and frequency of distress. They term this as emotional eating as they tend to switch to more junk food with high in calories and fat when they tackle with negative emotions. (Akkermann, 2017). Moreover, women craved chocolates more when in stress. Taken together, these results suggest that women were comparatively more emotional than men and preferred to deal with their emotions by eating. [8: Serlachius, A., Hamer, M. and Wardle, J., 2007. Stress and weight change in university students in the United Kingdom. Physiology & Behavior, 92(4), pp.548-553.

Conner M, Fitter M, Fletcher W (1999) Stress and snacking: A dietary study of daily hassles and between-meal snacking. Psychology & Health 14: 51-63.

Wardle J, Steptoe A, Oliver G, Lipsey Z (2000) Stress, dietary restraint and food intake. J Psychosom Res 48: 195-202.

Steptoe A, Lipsey Z, Wardle J (1998) Stress, hassles and variations in alcohol consumption, food choice and physical exercise: A daily study. British Journal of Health Psychology 3: 51-63.] [9: Alalwan, T.A., Hilal, S.J., Mahdi, A.M., Ahmed, M.A. and Mandeel, Q.A., 2019. Emotional eating behavior among University of Bahrain students: a cross-sectional study. Arab Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 26(1), pp.424-432.

Macht, M., 2008. How emotions affect eating: a five-way model. Appetite, 50(1), pp.1-11.]

There is also the assumption that underweight individuals eat less as compared to overweight people during both eustress and distress.

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Stress and Eating Disorder in Young People. (2021, Oct 21). Retrieved from

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