-Dr. Roma Patil

 Intern, Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute

Volunteer, Physicians Association for Nutrition India(PAN INDIA)

How often than not have we all experienced the urge to eat quick, easy-to-make and highly palatable foods during our exams? I have, and this is a fairly common practice worldwide. These foods not only provide an instant gratification, but offer a high degree of satiation as well. For many, this could be what they reward themselves with after a long study block. We might be diet conscious throughout the year, but during exams, we do give in to the urge of eating junk food. What we don’t  realize is that, this can lead to addictive behaviours and eating disorders in the future. It’s high time we hold back that habitual urge to grab an unhealthy snack off the supermarket aisle and make  healthier choices instead.


Stress can be defined as an integral response of the organism to pressures from the internal or external environment with the aim to maintain homeostasis. Stress affects our food choices through a lack of time for food preparation and by increasing preferences for higher-fat, energy-dense foods. On the other hand, stress has been shown to reduce participation in leisure time physical activity as well. An organism responds to a stressor with a highly coordinated series of events involving activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

In the short term, stress can shut down appetite. The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands to pump out the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, that temporarily puts eating on hold. But if stress persists, the adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol, and cortisol increases appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat.

Stress can also disrupt sleep by causing lighter sleep or more frequent awakenings, which may lead to fatigue the subsequent morning. In order to cope with daytime fatigue, people end up using stimulants such as caffeine or high-calorie snack foods.


Glucocorticoids chronically increase palatable food intake, which increases abdominal fat deposits and circulating insulin levels. In turn, an unidentified signal associated with the abdominal fat and insulin may signal to the brain to dampen the stress response, which could promote the feeling of well-being. However, when stress is unresolved, the deleterious cycle continues, culminating in insulin resistance and obesity. 

Repeated stimulation of the reward pathways through hyper palatable food may lead to neurological adaptations that eventually increase the compulsive nature of overeating characterized by the frequent drive to initiate eating.


  1. Being overweight or obese is a predictor of eating more during stress. For example, obese women with binge eating disorder have higher cortisol levels and a greater desire to binge in a stressful situation than control women of a comparable BMI.
  2. Stressed people eat highly palatable food because its consumption triggers a hedonic experience. But according to a study, stress-induced eating is driven by more than hedonic pleasure. They say that, under stress, people consume a larger amount of highly palatable food as a result of habits and Pavlovian-triggered motivational bursts. The palatable properties of food are important for these two systems during the learning stage, but once acquired, they can become completely independent of the hedonic pleasure experience. Therefore, under stress, people increase the consumption of the food they learned to search for, whether it is currently liked or not.
  3. Differences between Emotional hunger and Physical hunger
  1. According to a study, probiotic bacterium with an ability to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) prohibited increased levels of the stress marker-cortisol in students, during their exam season. Thus, a possible future target of probiotics could be chronically stressed individuals, in whom the sustained elevated levels of cortisol increase the risk of developing diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases and hypertension.


Common barriers to healthy eating are- time constraints, stress, high prices of healthy food, and easy access to junk food.

Some healthy snacks that you can eat and enjoy are;

  1. Berries, citrus fruits
  2. Mixed Nuts
  3. Whole eggs
  4. Dark chocolate
  5. Air popped Popcorn (not the microwave ones)
  6. Hummus with carrot or cucumber sticks
  7. Unsweetened yogurt
  8. Peanut butter
  9. Chickpea salad, Peanut chaat, Sprout salad
  10. Roasted lentils or Roasted chana 
  11. Drinks: Coconut water, black tea, green tea, oolong tea


Given that stress may affect appetite through both physiological and psychological mechanisms, relaxation may play an equivalent opposing role in both respects. Physiologically, relaxation may reduce the activation of HPA, and subsequently cortisol levels as well. In addition, relaxation may act as an alternative form of ‘reward’, displacing the neuropeptide-induced dopamine release that may promote hedonic overeating. From a psychological perspective, regular practice of the relaxation response may influence the ability to cope with a stressor, thereby weakening the cognitive component of the stress process that may lead to overeating.

If shown to be effective, regular relaxation practices may provide a convenient, patient-centered, cost and time efficient intervention that could be implemented in a broad range of population groups to enhance the health and wellbeing of our community.


  1. buddy-challenger-why-do-we-eat
  3. Pool, E., et al., Is comfort food really comforting? Mechanisms underlying stress induced eating,Food Research International (2015),
  4. Warne, J. P. (2009). Shaping the stress response: Interplay of palatable food choices,  glucocorticoids, insulin and abdominal obesity. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, 300(1-2),





8. Sogari G, Velez-Argumedo C, Gómez MI, Mora C. College Students and Eating Habits: A Study Using An Ecological Model for Healthy Behavior. Nutrients. 2018 Nov 23;10(12):1823. doi:

10.3390/nu10121823. PMID: 30477101; PMCID: PMC6315356.


10. AlJaber MI, Alwehaibi AI, Algaeed HA, Arafah AM, Binsebayel OA. Effect of academic stressors on eating habits among medical students in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. J Family Med Prim Care.

2019 Feb;8(2):390-400. doi: 10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_455_18. PMID: 30984644; PMCID:




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