Has Stress or Anxiety Hindered Your Appetite? Here’s What to Do
How to nourish ourselves well when stress takes over
A plethora of studies have shown that the number one cause of illness and death is fundamentally stress. As Dr. Laurel Mellin, author, researcher and clinical dietitian at University of California states, “when stress hits us, it causes us to overeat or undereat, over exercise or underexercise. Regardless of our response, the bottom line is we are in stress overload”. 1
In this blog post, we’ll dive into what happens to our body under stress, how that affects our eating patterns, and suggestions if you find yourself not eating due to stress or anxiety.
Stress overload is not a good place for our health to flourish. It means the hormone cortisol is running the show and we are not experiencing the peace and the joy of nourishing our bodies well; and no doubt, this has a toll on our mental, emotional and spiritual health. Our best life possible is attained by managing stress and anxiety adequately which results, among many things, in asserting our food choices in a way that is validating and integrative to our health journey.
I like to think that stress eating includes both overeating and undereating tendencies. The focus is on stress driving the reasons we eat (or not eat!) and the way we eat, resulting either way in problematic eating. Of course, those who lose their appetite and end up undereating may get away with less of a problem on the weight and body image front, but truly they can be suffering just as much and even more “silently” than those who put on pounds. Either side of the coin, will drastically hinder achieving our personal best weight, feeling motivated, energized, and truly healthy with a zest for life.
So, what happens when we are stressed?
From a biological perspective, stress results in many things, but some key factors relating to eating include:
- Appetite fluctuations- For instance, we can tend to not feel hungry for long periods of time, only to crash later on in the day and be ravenous. Vicious cycles of appetite suppression can result in placing our body in starvation mode, therefore, decreasing metabolism. This is why you might notice you’re not eating when stressed and losing your appetite.
- Increased cravings- mostly high sugar, high-fat foods with low nutrient density, especially if we have avoided eating balanced meals in a timely fashion.
- Decreased concentration and capacity for meal planning, cooking, and shopping- which end up fueling disordered eating patterns.
So what can we do if we find it hard to eat when stressed!? Here are six strategies to help you eat well under stress.
1. Make time!
Target your timing so that you are eating whole foods every 2-3 hours. Small frequent meals are one easy way to get nutrients in without overwhelming your body when you can’t even feel hungry.
2. Marry carbs with protein
Choose whole foods often and combine carbohydrates such as grain, starches, fruits and vegetables with a protein source (dairy, eggs, meat, tofu, nuts, seeds, etc). The synergy of these nutrients support glucose control, help regulate satiety to avoid cravings and increase variety in overall diet.
3. Drink plenty of water and warm herbal teas.
Being hydrated can help manage appetite. Warm teas can support appetite stimulation and help create a mindful moment to keep stress at bay. Ginger and turmeric root teas can warm the body, fight inflammation (a response to stress) and activate appetite. (Of course, check the safety of using herbal teas if pregnant, breastfeeding or for medication interactions).
4. Declutter your mental and physical environment.
Order and cleanliness can help support mindful moments that will help mindful eating decisions. For example- cleaning up your fridge and pantry, making a weekly meal plan and having an ongoing grocery list. Decluttering your headspace can help you acknowledge the value of waking up half an hour earlier to eat a hearty breakfast without rush, instead of skipping the meal all together. Small but meaningful things can lessen the stress to help you eat calmer, slower and more present to your body.
5. ASK FOR SUPPORT.
Where and when possible, tap into your networks to eat with them. This will inspire you to cook a delicious meal not just for yourself, or share the load with a potluck, or just enjoy a totally different delicious homemade meal you would have never thought to make. If you are a one-person household, this is key! Go out and enjoy new culinary experiences or set up a rotating weekly homemade meal with a group of friends. If you are a tired parent, ask your extended family or friends to come together and enjoy shared meals. Many grandparents will not mind sending a homemade meal per week to a tired overrun mom! ASK and RECEIVE!
6. Do a self-assessment of HOW you eat.
This can help highlight why there is stress when actually eating or how to change your mindset from hectic meals to peaceful ones. Read on.
SELF-TEST: How do I eat? A few questions to inspire change in eating with stress.
- Do I take time to prepare a nourishing meal?
- Do I sit comfortably and at ease when I eat?
- Do I have a beautiful, comfortable, inviting table to eat?
- Do I put screens away, remove distractions, take time off when I eat?
- Do I eat with others? ( loneliness triggers stress and lack of desire for eating)
- Do I choose a nourishing meal that I enjoy when I eat out? Do I make this experience a heart-warming connecting moment or one that is loaded with more stress and hecticness?
- Food nourishes my body; but does it also nourish my mind, heart and soul?
- Do I believe I am worthy of this time, energy, attention, calm and love?
- Do I know how to delight in a yummy meal or am I critical and contemptuous towards myself about my food choices?
Find one way you can eat once a week with people you love and share the load of cooking nourishing homemade meals OR create a little mindful ritual before meals that can help reduce stress prior to eating.
Struggling with stress eating (over or under eating) and need help to implement science-based strategies? We can help.
Since 2000, our team of registered dietitians have worked collaboratively to develop the tools, systems, and resources to help guide you on your journey of what, when, and how much to eat for optimal health. We specialize in a wide range of topics from intuitive eating, digestive health, to eating disorders
If you are looking for food freedom, a caring supportive co-pilot, and creating sustainable habits that fit into everyday life, we can help.
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Daniela O’Brien is known for her contagious smile, warm approachability and collaborative approach to nutrition counselling for individuals and families. Her non-judgemental, calm demeaner mixed with confidence and clear direction is especially helpful when families are struggling with meal planning challenges, picky eating, health issues and complex eating disorders. Daniela specializes in Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating, Weight Concerns, Pre/Post-natal, Infant/Kids/Family Nutrition and offers services in both English and Spanish.