Do you munch on chips while studying or head straight to the soft serve machine after a tough exam? If so, you are in good company.
Using eating to deal with stress is a common problem, especially in college. A 2011 study published by the University of Rhode Island concluded that coping with stress through eating was the greatest barrier towards healthy eating for college students.
Turning to food for comfort may seem like a quick fix for emotional distress, because eating carbohydrates increases our bodies’ serotonin levels (the hormone associated with feelings of well-being and happiness) for a short amount of time. However, in the long term, eating in excess throughout the day can build an unhealthy relationship with food and lead to potential weight gain.
There are ways to combat these cravings. Emerging research shows that mindful eating – a slow and thoughtful approach to food – may help people reduce emotional eating and unhealthy choices. Jean Kristeller, a psychologist at Indiana State University, conducted a study of 150 binge eaters and found that mindfulness-based therapy helped people feel more in control of their eating than standard psycho-educational treatment.
There are some strategies students can utilize to increase their capacity for mindful eating:
Eating too quickly may result in consuming more food than your body needs to be satisfied. It takes the brain about 20 minutes to register that the body is full.
Try setting a timer for 20 minutes and use the full time to consume a normal-sized meal at a leisurely pace. If you’re unsure of what a proper portion looks like, use the hand trick. For instance, one serving of meat, beans or nuts is 3 ounces, which is roughly the size of your palm. One serving of grains such as noodles, rice or oatmeal is generally a 1/2 cup, which is about a handful.
Other ways to slow down include eating with your non-dominant hand, using chopsticks if you’re unfamiliar with them, or taking smaller bites and chewing well.
Mindlessly snacking while studying or streaming Netflix can result in losing track of how much you are eating. Instead, try to stay conscious about food by making eating an experience. Allow yourself to be fully immersed by smelling the food, feeling its texture and savoring its flavor.
Large portion sizes are another way people forget to notice how much they are eating. Food psychologist Brian Wansink of Cornell University conducted an experiment, which found that people ate 34 to 45 percent more popcorn if it was served in a super-sized (240 grams) bucket rather than a medium container (120 grams) regardless if it was stale. Using smaller bowls, plates and cups can help reduce portion sizes.
It sounds simple to only eat when you’re truly hungry, but for many it can be a struggle. Before you open that candy bar or box of crackers, ask yourself if you are actually hungry for food. If you’re eating based off of emotional cues, rather than physical ones, no amount of food will satisfy your body.
There are other types of hunger we need to satisfy in order to feel nourished. Perhaps you’re hungry for friendship and need to talk to someone. Maybe you’re craving physical activity and should go for a walk. You could need some intellectual stimulation that would be better satisfied by reading a book.
College can be a tempting time to develop the habit of mindless eating; it presents new challenges and time-constraints that can be incredibly stressful. Though some level of stress is inevitable, turning to food – no matter how delicious –will not solve the root of the problem. By eating mindfully and choosing healthier ways of coping with stress, you can increase your health and overall happiness.
Lindsey Truesdell is a junior in nutrition and health. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.