Trading Full Schedules for Empty Stomachs

A look at students’ eating habits as they balance their personal lives with heavy workloads and immense stress.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

After a long day at school, there is no greater relief than returning home. Finally, students can set their bags down, take a seat, and address their stomachs’ roaring grumbles—some days, that is. Oftentimes, Stuyvesant students find that their heavy workloads take priority over simple personal needs—including eating.

Freshman Veronika Gulko frequently falls into inconsistent eating habits. “Lunch is always varied. I can have lunch seventh period or I will have lunch at like 7:00 p.m. If my homework isn’t done, I won’t survive. If I don’t eat lunch for like a few hours, I’ll be fine,” Gulko explained. To Gulko, schoolwork takes precedence over her body’s needs. Though eating is a basic necessity in life, it can take the backseat when students are inundated with deadlines that seem more pressing. This feeds into a mentality where eating is not seen as a need but a time-consuming nuisance.

This mentality is prevalent among many Stuyvesant students. Sophomore Cindy Ye explained that studying for exams causes her to postpone meals. “So I actually had a chem test, and just after getting home on Monday, I was so incredibly worried that I just didn’t want to eat,” Ye said. When test-induced anxiety deterred her from eating, Ye claimed that her productivity increased. “I got to study at that time and be more productive and get better sleep so this test could go better, and it did go better. But I did not eat well that day,” Ye explained. To some students, productivity outweighs hunger—a stance that can be quite dangerous. Several studies have proven that skipping meals results in a lack of energy and lower blood sugar levels, which can affect students’ moods. Conversely, eating can help improve focus, memory, and cognitive abilities.

Other students skip meals because school-related stress diminishes their feelings of hunger. Freshman Leonardo Benitez described how recurring anxiety provokes this pattern. “If it’s like the morning of an exam, or if I’m nervous about a project or something, I find that I definitely have less of an appetite and even looking at food […] makes me kind of sick,” Benitez explained.

On the flip side, such anxiety can fuel stress eating. As students’ schedules become packed and meals become more inconsistent, many fall back on food as a form of comfort. “When I have a deadline far away, I stress eat in advance,” freshman Rebekah Abraham said. Sometimes the anticipation of an immense workload can increase stress levels, which is scientifically proven to increase appetites; cortisol—the stress hormone—can cause cravings for sugary, salty and fatty foods.

This can make stress eating a health concern for some students. Often, these cravings are limited to snacks rather than adequate meals. “When I’m [going] home […] I’m so hungry, but I know that I won’t find any good food spots within a 10-minute walk. So, I buy a bunch of snacks to hold me over for the hour and 30 minutes I’m on the bus, and I just end up snacking so much,” Gulko said. “It’s like empty calories. I don’t feel full, but like, I know I ate so much,” Gulko added. However, this so-called “junk food” can give students the boost they need to get through the day, which makes it hard to label it as inherently bad or unhealthy.

This is especially true since there is no one-size-fits-all with health; above all else, balance is key. Everyone has their own needs, which must be tailored around their unique schedules. After all, many students find that the length of their daily commute correlates with their after-school snacking habits. Freshman Anita Wu expressed that her commute shortens the length of time she is at home, thereby reducing the timeframe she has to eat. “It takes me about an hour and a half to get to school, so I have to eat breakfast a lot earlier than I did in middle school. Additionally, extracurriculars and tutoring programs result in me eating dinner a lot later since I arrive home late, and I will try to finish my homework before I have dinner,” Wu explained in an e-mail interview.

 In addition to lowering energy levels, skipping meals can take away from time with family and add to the isolation many Stuyvesant students feel when they are deep in work or studying. “I will sometimes eat with my family, but on the days where I have a lot of work to do, I usually bring my food to my desk instead,” Wu said. She also commented, “I am a slow eater, so it takes a long time for me to finish eating, which makes it more of a chore if anything.” However, food is as much of a necessity in life as going to the bathroom or drinking water—it speaks to Stuyvesant’s high-pressure environment that this innate act is considered a chore.

Unfortunately, students often feel guilty for choosing to eat rather than work. “I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I should be studying right now,’ or ‘Hey, I should be doing something else.’ So I can't end up eating,” Gulko said. “I feel bad about it, but at the same time, I understand that my grades matter to me a bit more than just eating.”

However, close friends and family discourage such mentalities and make sure students are keeping up with their nutritional needs. “I think that it became so widespread of our friends just reminding each other like, ‘Hey you should probably take a break,’ or ‘Drink some water,’ because like everybody knows that that’s what you need, and like nobody does it,” Gulko explained. While friends can play a vital role in students’ support systems, it seems that it is easier for students to counteract their friends’ unhealthy habits than counteract their own.

Other students prefer to hold themselves accountable for their eating choices. “I think I would also try to make myself eat because I know I have to eat. Otherwise, the next morning I’ll be so hungry,” Abraham shared. Having the energy to power through can be arduous without sustenance. Without fuel, students cannot expect to have the energy to succeed.

For some, however, it is difficult to maintain a consistent eating schedule, and understandably so—students have a lot on their plates, and they should never feel they have to pick between eating and enjoyable after-school activities. As Gulko explained, “I just try to balance it out to make sure that my meals are sometimes there.”

Part of this division of time involves students weighing what brings them joy. Freshman Tajree Tabassum described how she prioritizes spending time with friends. “School drains me a lot, so spending time with them during my lunch period […] is my time to relax and forget about classes,” Tabassum said. By making meals a social experience, students can reap the benefits of nutrition and relationship-building in the same sitting.

Ultimately, the Stuyvesant experience is only four years, but maintaining one’s health and well-being is a lifelong mission. Despite food being a necessity, it is frequently disregarded as an inconvenience due to how pressing academics seem. Ultimately, students’ grades will benefit from finding balance between academics, family, extracurriculars, and health. Through a re-evaluation of necessities and values, everyone is capable of finding a lifestyle that best suits their current needs and, above all else, brings them health and happiness.