- Julie C.H. Brake, MS, RDN, LD
When Stress Affects Your Hunger
Has your life been crazy lately? How do stressful circumstances affect you? Everyone handles stress differently. And stress affects us in different ways as well. For some people, being anxious or under stress takes away appetite and hunger, and it is a real struggle to eat. For others, anxiety or stress increases hunger and suppresses the fullness cue, so it seems like it's not possible to eat enough. How do we handle these situations? What is the best way to approach hunger and fullness levels that change when under stress?
First, stress and anxiety can be real concerns. Feeling anxious affects one's spirit as well as the body - it can change the ability to eat, drink, sleep, function at work, or interact with family and friends. Everyone has stress in their lives, and we must all find a way to appropriately deal with the stress. Not eating, overeating, sleeping for days, excessive exercise, taking in extra caffeine, or finding ways to escape are not healthy ways of handling stress. These methods will cause other negative effects - malnutrition, feeling burdened, depression, injury, disconnection with community, to name a few. So finding the best way that you as an individual handles stress is very important. I personally go to Scripture when I feel anxious or worried:
Jesus says: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30 ESV
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." - Philippians 4:4-7 ESV
There are several great Biblical resources about stress as well, some of which are listed on the Testimonials & Resources page of Positive Nutrition's website. Practical ways to handle stress that aren't harmful include taking deep breaths, going for a brief walk, listening to music or singing, drawing or writing, gentle physical activity, talking with a friend or loved one, and many others. The point is to find something that actually helps decrease the stress and is not physically or emotionally harmful.
Second, let's approach how to handle it if stress takes away your appetite. What do you do if you just don't feel like eating? Aren't you supposed to only eat if hungry? It's important to be mindful. If you are stressed, your body needs nutrition, but sometimes food is unappealing or there may even be nausea with the stress. Your body is hungry but your anxiety is interfering with being able to sense the hunger cue. Think about at least getting meals, even if you don't feel hungry, and try to choose foods that feel manageable or comforting. Sometimes drinking a big smoothie for breakfast is enough. Skipping one meal or snack can be okay, but it can be a slippery slope toward not eating. A general rule is to not skip two usual meals or snacks in a row. It can be difficult to choose something to eat when there isn't any appetite, so if you are especially stressed plan to have some of your favorite meals or go out to eat with a friend. Pay close attention to your eating patterns if you are under a stressful situation that is continuing for multiple days in a row, and be sure to eat meals whether you feel hungry or not. Often we find that when we make something to eat, we realize we really are hungry!
Third, what is the best way to handle it when stress increases hunger? If you follow your hunger cues when stressed, do you feel overly full? The answer here is again mindfulness. Sometimes your body genuinely needs more nutrition when there is stress, and it's asking for more food and energy. Carefully considering what and how much to eat will help navigate these murky situations. Also, check in on hunger and fullness cues while eating. Eating "too much" is very individual and relative - what is "too much" for you might be completely normal or not enough for someone else - so be sure to think about when you are starting to feel full. If anxiety interferes with your fullness cue, serve yourself a reasonable amount of food for you, and then stop and wait several minutes to see if you are truly satisfied with what you ate. Note that cravings for comforting food when under stress are completely normal. Accept this, and understand that it is okay to eat foods that are a comfort as long as you don't expect that to solve whatever is causing the stress.
Lastly, know yourself. Know your tendencies, and be honest with yourself about whether or not you are doing the right thing for you. Deal with stressful situations head-on if you can, and avoid increasing the anxiety by using coping mechanisms that affect you in a negative way. Also acknowledge if you are unsure of or out of touch with hunger and fullness cues. If you need help, please reach out. Positive Nutrition is always happy to offer help and referrals when needed.
Jesus says: "Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also." - John 14:1-3 NASB