Many college students struggle with maintaining a healthy diet. Registered dietician Rachel Paul, who specializes in nutrition for young adults, outlines some of the common reasons why it can be so easy to overeat in college, and offers insight on how to overcome these hurdles.
It’s 10:00PM. You’ve been working all day, but want to finish that paper before you head to bed. You’re frustrated, bored, getting tired and anxious—and the bag of chips in the vending machine is calling your name. You buy it, take it back to your desk, and get back to work. By the time the clock hits 11:00, you’ve eaten the whole bag – and didn’t even realize it!
Starting from a very young age, we’re taught that food is a reward or treat. It can complement emotions ranging from joy to grief. Cake seems necessary to celebrate birthdays and weddings. Your best friend always brings over ice cream for you to share while you talk about a bad day. While these emotion-behavior pairings can be beneficial from time to time, they are not always necessary and often result in overeating. Here are the common culprits– and how to avoid them!
Reason #1: You’re with your friends.
Being in social situations is one of the most common causes of overeating. Once you’re caught in a conversation, it can be easy to lose track of the other things you’re doing—like eating. Humans are socially-facilitated, too, which means that we tend to do what other people are doing for the sake of being accepted. Studies have found that people eat up to 50% more when eating with others versus dining alone. However – the goal here is NOT to become anti-social! Just to master the situation. Next time you’re at a restaurant, ask for a to-go container before your food arrives and pack up half your plate before you start eating. When you’re at a party, fill a small plate with hors d’oeuvres then back away from the table. If you find yourself wanting to eat more after you finish, take a few minutes to decide if you’re hungry or just eating because everyone else is.
Reason #2: You’re bored.
You finished your work a half-hour sooner than you anticipated, so you have more time to kill than expected. Even though you just had lunch, eating is a satisfying way to pass the time. Mindlessly rummaging through the kitchen for a few crackers, a granola bar, or a piece of chocolate doesn’t seem so bad in the moment… but it can take a toll on your caloric intake for the day. Next time you find yourself staring blankly into the refrigerator, reach for a bottle of water. Not only will you have something to occupy yourself with while you flip through Facebook before getting ready to leave, but you may realize that your body isn’t actually hungry for more food just yet.
Reason #3: You’re stressed, anxious, or sad.
Studies have found that using food to cope with emotions is a common cause of overeating—especially when people are feeling stressed, anxious, and depressed. Since many of us are programmed to associate feelings with food, it can be difficult to avoid overeating when we feel down. Instead of reaching into the cupboard the next time you’re feeling this way, try other stress-reducing techniques like taking a walk or writing in a journal. If you’re hungry, portion your snack before taking it to the table to avoid overindulging with the entire bag or container. Chances are, you’ll feel better if you’re comfortably satiated rather than overstuffed.
Reason #4: You carb-loaded at breakfast.
Carbohydrates are an essential part of the diet and should constitute about half of your daily caloric intake. Many people think of carbohydrates solely as foods like pasta and bread, but fruits and vegetables are also included in this category. While some carbs like whole grains bread or steel-cut oats are absorbed in the body more slowly, others are absorbed rapidly, leading to a blood sugar spike followed by a quick drop. This phenomenon is associated with the concept of the glycemic index: the rate at which blood sugar rises and falls after eating a certain food. Foods high on the glycemic index scale tend to make you consume more in the following hours, studies have found. Instead of eating white toast or a plain bagel in the morning, try switching it up with a multi-grain bread product or introducing leafy, fibrous vegetables to your egg scramble. These foods will help you feel satiated longer!
Reason #5: You feel deprived.
A common downfall of the classic attempt at dieting is feeling completely restricted from the foods you love. At the start, dieters try to cut out all “bad” foods and only eat “good” ones – does any of that sound familiar? Ultimately, people tend to reach a state of “ego depletion”—your willpower will cave in on itself as you pass a bakery after only eating vegetables for the previous week. Instead of getting one cookie to split with a friend like you may have under normal circumstances, you decide order a dozen cupcakes with the intentions of surprising your coworkers the next day, only to eat three of them that night. Instead of trying the old-fashioned “diet,” try to follow the everything-in-moderation principle. When the thought of a sweet treat tempts you, try sticking to about a 100-calorie portion, and try eating slowly to savor every bite. You won’t feel deprived, but you also won’t overload and feel guilty.
While there are many triggers for eating more than our bodies actually call for, consciously considering what you’re about to eat and why you are about to eat it are generally great ways to overcome these temptations.
Thank you to Chloe Cerino for her contribution to this article.
Note: PLEASE consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet or medications. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only, and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.