Up all night, stressing out, feeling pressured. Cramming for college finals can bring all that, plus have students reaching for fatty, sugary foods, a new study suggests.

“Stress has long been implicated in poor diet. People tend to report overeating and comfort eating foods high in fat, sugar and calories in times of stress,” said study leader Nathalie Michels, from Ghent University, in Belgium.

“Our findings looking at the eating habits of students during exam periods confirm this stress-induced dietary deterioration hypothesis,” Michels added.

For the study, her team looked at the responses of 232 students at universities in Belgium who completed an anonymous online survey.

The participants completed the survey before and after a month-long examination period in 2017. The students were asked about their stress levels and changes in their eating habits.

During the exam period, students were less likely to follow a healthy diet, and only one-quarter of them met the World Health Organization-recommended intake of 400 grams of fruit and vegetables a day.

The researchers also found that students with higher levels of stress tended to snack more often.

The study was presented this week at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, Scotland. Such research should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“A healthy diet is needed for optimal academic and mental performance. Unfortunately, our findings suggest that students have difficulties eating healthily and find themselves adopting bad eating habits, which over a few weeks can considerably affect your overall health and be difficult to change,” Michels said in a meeting news release.

The researchers said the findings suggest that students at greatest risk of poor eating habits during exam periods include: emotional eaters (who eat in response to negative emotions); external eaters (who eat in response to the sight or smell of food); sweet/fat lovers; people sensitive to reward and punishment; inactive people; and those with higher stress levels.

“To fight against stress-induced eating, prevention strategies should integrate psychological and lifestyle aspects including stress management (e.g., emotion regulation training, mindfulness, yoga), nutritional education with techniques for self-effectiveness, awareness of eating-without-hunger, and creating an environment that stimulates a healthy diet and physical activity,” Michels said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on stress.