URJHS Volume 7


The Relationship Between Stress and Eating in College-Aged Students

Brittany Gower, Christina E. Hand, and Zachariah K. Crooks
Huntington University



For most people today’s society is a stressful environment, and often they eat as a way of dealing with this stress. The purpose of this study was to determine if there was a correlation between the amount of stressors among college-aged students and their eating habits. Male and female students between the ages of 18 to 23 were conveniently sampled. The Compulsive Eating Scale (CES) (Kagan & Squires, 1984) and the Stressful Situations Questionnaire (SSQ) (Hodges & Felling, 1970) were used to measure each variable. The results were compared using a Pearson r. The null hypothesis was rejected, and a positive correlation between compulsive eating and stress was found.


Despite commonly held beliefs about weight gain during college, few researchers have evaluated this phenomenon. In one study of 135 college students, statistically significant but modest weight increases occurred during the freshman year for most participants (Adams & Rini, 2007). As young adults move into an independent living situation, there is a high risk for unhealthy eating habits. Although this may not translate into the weight gain known as the “Freshman 15,” this is the time period when young adults begin to cement their eating habits.

Current research found that students who gain weight during this period tend to continue a slow, steady gain in weight (Gores, 2008). A recent study performed by Nelson, Gortmamker, Subramanian, Cheung, and Wechsler (2007) reported that students in transition from adolescence to adulthood were at risk for excess weight gain, likely due to excess food consumption. Students entering college may be making independent decisions about their diet, activity, and television viewing behaviors for the first time. They also concluded that new environmental and social factors might emerge during this time period and have a greater influence on their behavior.

Holm-Denoma, Joiner, Vohs, and Heatherton (2008) found that men and women gained a significant amount of weight (3.5 and 4.0 pounds, respectively) between their senior year of high school and their freshman year of college, with the absence of a significant increase in height. The results of this study supported the findings that the average weight gain during the first year of college was significant. The authors further elaborated that the results demonstrated that participants appeared to gain weight early in the year (i.e., by November), after which time the weight gain was maintained.

Attending a university or college for the first time can be a stressful experience for many new college students. In fact, one study that evaluated the cardiovascular health needs of college students found that nearly 60 percent of the students rated their stress levels as high or very high (Nguyen-Michel, Unger, Hamilton, & Spruijt-Metz, 2006). The experience of stress is likely to be a regular occurrence in the lives of new college students, given the nature of the transition that they are making. Torres & Nowson (2007) define stress as any general response of the body that either overwhelms or threatens to overwhelm the body and its ability to maintain homeostasis. In general, stress occurs when there are demands on an individual that exceed his or her coping capabilities. And the reaction to stress may vary depending on the nature of the events that are occurring and the characteristics of the individual (Dyson & Renk, 2006). One common naturalistic stressor for any college student is examination stress. There is quality evidence to suggest that the stress of taking examinations increases elevated activity in the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and this increases release of cortisol (Weekes, Lewis, Patel, Garrison-Jakel, Berger, & Lupien, 2006). Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in the adrenal gland and is referred to as the stress hormone since it is involved in our reaction to stress.

But earning high grades is not the only source of stress for college students. Other potential sources of stress include excessive homework, unclear assignments, and uncomfortable classrooms. In addition to academic expectations and requirements, relations with faculty members and time pressures may also be sources of stress. Relationships with family and friends, eating and sleeping habits, and loneliness may affect some students adversely (Ross, Neibling, & Heckert, 1999).

When attempting to describe the behavioral consequences of stress, most have associated the alteration of eating habits with chronic stress. When one is chronically stressed, the stress hormone cortisol is released, which causes some individuals to excessively eat (Torres & Nowson, 2007). Adams and Epel (2007) found that people who identify themselves as eating more under stress had higher urinary cortisol and insulin when they were stressed out. Studies looking at the effect of stress on eating habits have shown that the level of the stressor has an impact on the individual’s eating habits (Torres & Nowson, 2007). We can also conclude from longitudinal studies that there appears to be a correlation between chronic life stress and future weight gain (Torres & Nowson, 2007).

Most of us live in a stressful environment, and we often eat as a way of dealing with stress or as a way to calm ourselves. For example researchers who studied Chinese college students showed that many more women had problems with their body than men and therefore would emotionally eat (Liu, Xie, Chou, Koprowski, Zhou, & Palmer, 2007).

As far as gender is concerned, studies also concluded that women usually over-eat more than men during times of high stress. The elevated level of cortisol may make the caloric intake higher (Adams & Rini, 2007). Economos, Hildebrandt, & Hyatt (2006) showed that when academic stressors were at a higher level in females, this tended to increase their food consumption.

The connection between nutrition and stress can be intriguing, because usually wise food choices are the last thing on our mind when we perceive stress. Nutritional deficiencies are rarely the cause of the stress. We do know that our nutritional needs change when we are experiencing stress, and we can help the body "cope" with stress by providing enough of the nutrients which are in greater demand or are more difficult to acquire when we perceive stress. Zellner, Loaiza, Gonzalez, Pita, Morales, Pecora, et al. (2006) found that while a group placed in stressful situations did not necessarily eat more, they were more inclined to eat more unhealthy foods, such as foods higher in calories (e.g., M&M’s). They also found that people who were more restrained when eating tended to eat much more when they were under perceived stress (Zellner et. al, 2006). Hudd, Dumlao, Erudmann-Sager, Murray, Phan, and Soukas (2000) found that students who were stressed consumed more soda and junk food than non-stressed students who reported more fruits and vegetables in their diet.

So, the present study hypothesized that as stress increases in college students lives, their desire to overeat also would increase. A positive correlation between stress and uncontrollable eating patterns was expected.



Male and female traditional full-time college students ages 18 to 23 were asked to participate in the study. The students attended a private Christian liberal arts college located in the Midwest. The ethnicity of the students was 100 percent Caucasian with a total of 82 students. Thirty-nine male and 43 female students were conveniently selected to complete the surveys.


The Compulsive Eating Scale (CES) (Kagan & Squires 1984) was used to measure uncontrollable eating patterns of the participants. The scale has 8 items that assess the inability to control one’s eating behavior in terms of overeating and eating when not hungry. The CES was developed for high school students and for male and females alike. The CES is a scale also appropriate for adults. The CES has reliability and validity. It was tested for internal consistency and was found to have a coefficient of .75. Validity was found, with the CES correlating with the variables of self-discipline and rebelliousness. For a sample of the CES, see Appendix A. Gender, race, age, and class rank were added to the beginning of this measure when it was given to the respondents in this study.

The Stressful Situations Questionnaire (SSQ) (Hodges & Felling, 1970) was used to measure stress in the participants. The survey has 40 items that assess the level of reported apprehension or anxiety in various situations relevant to college students. The SSQ has no known reliability. Validity was shown through correlations with a trait anxiety measure and with the Combined Stressful Situations Questions score. For a sample of the SSQ refer to Appendix B.


Participants entered the classroom and seated themselves at a desk. The researcher gave both surveys to each participant. The participants were then asked to complete The Compulsive Eating Scale first and then The Stressful Situations Questionnaire. Each participant was also asked to complete each survey honestly. They were informed that their identity would be anonymous and that they could leave at anytime without any prejudice. The participants were also told to turn the surveys over when they were done. Then they were free to leave. After the participant left, the survey was collected and scored.


A Pearson r statistic was used to analyze the data. Using an alpha level of .05 and 80 degrees of freedom, the null hypothesis was rejected. The obtained r of 0.22 was less than the critical r of 0.38. A significant correlation between the amount of over-eating and stress was found. A positive correlation (Figure 1) existed between the two suggesting that as stress increased for the traditional college student between the ages of 18 and 25, food consumption or overeating also increased.

Figure 1 Correlation of compulsive eating and stress

A post hoc analysis of the data examined how gender might impact this correlation. When the correlation between food consumed and stress was considered for females alone (using an alpha level of .05 and 41 degrees of freedom), no significant difference was found. The obtained r was .21 and the critical r was .31. Since the r obtained was less than the critical r, the null hypothesis was retained.

But when the correlation was examined for males alone (using an alpha level of .05 and 37 degrees of freedom), a significant difference was found. The obtained r of .47 was greater than the critical r of .32 so the null hypothesis was rejected. It appeared that most of the correlation between food consumption and stress level was due to the males in the group.


The present data are consistent with past research that suggests that as stress increases, food consumption also increases. As we originally hypothesized, apprehensiveness or stress does influence uncontrollable eating habits, and the two are positively correlated. The results of our study imply that the more stress or apprehension a person feels in certain situations, the more likely they are to overeat or emotionally eat.

After finding a correlation between stress and food consumption with both genders combined, we decided to separate the male and female participants and performed a post hoc analysis to look for any difference by gender. To our surprise, the males had a significant correlation, and the females did not. Past research has found that women will tend to eat more under stress. But in the environment in which we conducted our study, we found otherwise.

It is difficult to know the reason for this finding. The so-called “Community Life Agreement” could have influenced it. At this particular Christian institution, which forbids the consumption of alcohol, the majority of men may channel their stress toward food rather than alcohol. The community relations that are common on small college campuses and in Christian-affiliated institutions where community is emphasized could also influence the lack of correlation for women. Female students may find it easier to communicate with members of their community as a means of coping with stress than male students do. Women may tend to turn to their friendships and staff for support during stressful situations, while men may turn to nonrelational coping strategies, such as food consumption.

Implications we can take from this study, and others like it, are that when we are under stress we need to be aware of how we can cope and of our temptation to cope by over-eating. We conclude that more research needs to be done in this area to determine what social and environmental factors contribute to overeating and presumed weight gain in college and how to reduce it for the traditional college students who want to have a healthier lifestyle. Because research also shows that college students will tend to eat things with higher fat and sugar content when stressed, colleges should offer healthier food options for students, especially in those times when they are likely to be very stressed (Zellner, Loaiza, Gonzalez, Pita, Morales, Pecora, et al., 2006).

Selection bias is factor that could have influenced the findings. This is because the subject selection was done conveniently and also from within a small Christian-affiliated college. The likelihood is high that the subjects do not represent the entire population of college students.

Another factor is demoralization of the subjects. This occurs when the subjects have feelings of deprivation, which in turn cause them to give up on what they are doing. Instead of completing the questionnaires, as they were asked to do, they just started to fill them out at random just so they could finish. Although there was no evidence of this, it is a factor for consideration.

Limitations to our study include surveying only one college campus—a private Christian affiliated institution. But this is what we wished to know: Does a small, conservative university respond in a similar way to the established literature? Another limitation was that there was no diversity in the study. All individuals surveyed were Caucasian; in turn, there could be differences in the way other races respond to stress. Seeking out more diversity is recommended for further research, thus attempting to obtain a more representative sample of the population.

It is necessary for incoming college students to be aware of the possible correlation between stress and overeating, and alternative strategies for coping should be presented to college students. Those who are willing to talk about stress in order to manage it should also have those options. Students should be provided counseling services to help them through hard or stressful times. Most schools offer free counseling that students need to know is there for their use.


Adam, T., & Epel, E. (2007). Stress, eating, and the reward system. Physiology and Behavior, 91, 449-458.

Adams, T., & Rini, A. (2007, May) Predicting 1-year change in body mass index among college students. Journal of American College Health, 55(6), 18-23.

Dyson, R., & Renk, K. (2006). Freshmen adaptation to university life: depressive symptoms, stress and coping. Journal of Clinical Psycholog, 62(10), 1231-1244.

Economos, C., Hildebrandt, L., & Hyatt, R. (2008) College freshman stress and weight change: Differences by gender. American Journal Health Behavior, 32(1), 16-25.

Gores, S. E. (2008, January). Addressing nutritional issues in the college -aged client. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, 20 (1), 5-10.

Hodges, W. F., & Felling, J. P. (1970). Types of stressful situations and their relation to trait anxiety and sex. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 34(3), 333-337.

Holm-Denoma, J. M., Joiner, T. E. Jr., Vohs, K. D., & Heatherton, T. F. (2008, January). The “freshman fifteen” (the “freshman five” actually): Predictors and possible explanations. Health Psychology, 27(1), 97-100.

Hudd, S., Dumlao, J., Erdmann-Sager, D., Murray, R., Phan, E., Soukas, N., et al. (2000, June). Stress at college: Effects on health habits, health status and self-esteem. College Student Journal, 34(2), 217-227.

Kagan, D. M., & Squires, R. L. (1984). Compulsive eating, dieting, stress, and hostility among college students. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(3), 213-220.

Liu, C., Xie, B., Chou, C., Koproswski, C., Zhou, D., & Palmer, P., et al. (2007). Perceived stress, depression and food consumption frequency in the college students of China seven cities. Physiology & Behavior, 92, 748-754.

Nelson, T. F., Gortmamker, S. L., Subramanian, S. V., Cheung, L., & Wechsler, H. (2007). Disparities in overweight and obesity among U.S. college students. Health Behavior, 31(4), 363-373.

Nguyen-Michel, S. T., Unger, J. B., Hamilton, J., & Spruijt-Metz, D. (2006, January). Associations between physical activity and perceived stress/hassles in college students. Stress and Health, 22, 179-188.

Ross, S., Neibling, B., & Heckert, T. (1999, June). Sources of stress among college students. College Student Journal, 33(2), 312-317.

Torres, S., & Nowson, C. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition , 23 (11-12), 887-894.

Weekes, N., Lewis, R., Patel, F., Garrison-Jakel, J., Berger, D. E., & Lupien, S. J. (2006, December). Examination stress as an ecological inducer of cortisol and psychological responses to stress in undergraduate students. Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stres,. 9(4), 199-206.

Zellner, D., Loaiza, S., Gonalez, Z., Pita, J., Morales, J., Pecora, D., & Wolf, A. (2006). Food selection changes under stress. Psychology and Behavior, 87, 798-793.

Appendix A

Please fill out each of the following.

Age ______ Race ______ Gender ______ Class rank ______

Compulsive Eating Scale (CES)

How often do you do each of the following activities? Circle the one answer for each question that comes closest to describing you.

1. Eat because you are feeling lonely.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week   e. More than once a week

2. Feel completely out of control when it comes to food.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week   e. More than once a week

3. Eat so much that your stomach hurts.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week   e. More than once a week

4. Eat too much because you are upset or nervous.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week   e. More than once a week

5. Eat too much because you are bored.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week e.   More than once a week

6. Go out with friends just for the purpose of over-stuffing yourselves with food.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week   e. More than once a week

7. Eat so much food so fast that you don’t know how much you ate or how it tasted.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week   e. More than once a week

8. Get out of bed at night, go in to the kitchen, and finish the remains of some delicious food, because you knew it was there.

    a. Never   b. Once or twice a year   c. Once a month   d. Once a week  e. More than once a week

Appendix B
Stressful Situations Questionnaire (SSQ)

Everyone is faced with situations in life that makes one feel more or less apprehensive. Below is a list of situations that you may have experienced or might be placed in some day. First, read through the entire list; then, for each situation, indicate at the left the number that best describes the degree of apprehensiveness or concern you have felt or believe you would feel if in that situation. Do not skip any items. Work rapidly and put down your first impression.

1 = None at all
2 = Slight
3 = Moderate
4 = Considerable
5 = Extreme

____ 1. Going on a blind date.

____ 2. Asking someone for a date to a party.

____ 3. Seeing someone bleed profusely from a cut arm.

____ 4. Asking a teacher to clarify an assignment in class.

____ 5. Giving a speech in front of class.

____ 6. Introducing a friend and forgetting his name.

____ 7. Putting iodine on an open cut.

____ 8. Having someone angry at you.

____ 9. Taking a test that you expect to fail.

____ 10. Seeing a dog run over by a car.

____ 11. Walking in a slum alone at night.

____ 12. Giving blood at the Blood Bank.

____ 13. Riding in an airplane in a storm.

____ 14. Being present in a storm at an operation or watching one in a movie.

____ 15. Belching aloud in class.

____ 16. Having a tooth cavity filled.

____ 17. Climbing too steep a mountain.

____ 18. Paying respects at the open coffin of an acquaintance.

____ 19. Being refused membership in a social club.

____ 20. Asking a question in class.

____ 21. Doing poorly in a course that seems easy to others.

____ 22. Reciting a poem in class.

____ 23. Having your date leave a dance with someone else.

____ 24. Reciting in language class.

____ 25. Finding the questions on a test extremely difficult.

____ 26. Having to ask for money that was borrowed from you.

____ 27. Forgetting lines in a school play.

____ 28. Riding a car going 95 miles per hour.

____ 29. Asking a teacher to explain the grading of your test.

____ 30. Getting hurt in a fight.

____ 31. Telling an uninvited guest to leave a party.

____ 32. Passing a very bad traffic accident.

____ 33. Being the only person at a party not dressed up.

____ 34. Introducing yourself to someone attractive of the opposite sex.

____ 35. Spilling your drink on yourself at a formal dinner party.

____ 36. Having an interview for a job.

____ 37. Volunteering an answer to a question in class.

____ 38. Getting back a test you think you may have failed.

____ 39. Skiing out of control.

____ 40. Asking the person behind you to stop kicking your seat.

____ 41. Kissing a date for the first time.

____ 42. Asking a teacher to explain a question during a test.

____ 43. Asking people in a study room to make less noise.

____ 44. Being in a difficult course for which you have inadequate background.

____ 45. Participating in a psychology experiment in which you receive electric shock



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