Typically, stress affects our diet in two major ways: physical changes with food like how much we eat, what foods we choose, and not having the time or energy to focus on balanced choices. It also can have a major impact from a psychological perspective: We may turn to food to cope with tough emotions under stress, we may not be able to be as present while eating, or we may experience increased critical thoughts about food and our body.
- Miranda Galati, MHSc, RD, Miranda Galati, aka Real Life Nutritionist, is a Canadian-based registered dietitian whose mission is to help women discover their healthiest and happiest selves without restrictive diets. She believes every woman is capable of building a peaceful relationship with food without...
Get ready to unravel the connection between stress and diet and empower yourself with new skills to navigate these hidden obstacles along the way. We spoke to expert dietitians to share their insights on how food choices change under stress and what you can do about it.
Your appetite may respond to stress by going way up or way down
Whether it’s intentional or not, appetite changes are a strong indicator of how stressed we feel. You may also notice that your appetite is off-schedule from your typical day. You may find yourself getting hungry at random times, or having uncharacteristic loss of appetite. In short-term scenarios, this is totally normal and not such a big deal. However, if you’re living in a constant state of fight-or-flight, and you notice appetite changes as a result, it may be time for something to change.
Stress can impact what you’re eating and how much, says Miranda Galati, MHSc, RD of Real Life Nutritionist. When you’re having a tough day, you may be more likely to eat beyond comfortable fullness. Doing this frequently can make achieving your health goals more challenging, and it’s likely to cause uncomfortable digestive symptoms like bloating and gas too, Galati shares.
On another note, stress can be a sneaky cause of restriction too. On a stressful day, you might be that much more likely to ignore your need for nourishment. “Restricting food on a stressful day can worsen mental and physical distress — when your tank is low and you’re short on fuel, anxiety and stress can feel heightened. Restriction often has the opposite of your intended effects — eventually, your hunger will kick into overdrive and you might end the day eating way beyond fullness and feeling even more stressed and uncomfortable,” Galati offers. This feedforward cycle can be vicious, and eating regular, balanced meals even on tough days is important to keep yourself fueled.
The gut-brain axis is a two-way street, and digestion can absolutely be affected by our stress levels
As a secondary effect, we may choose different foods due to not feeling our best or having wonky digestive symptoms. In chronic scenarios, where you experience regular and resolving digestive issues, your relationship with food can be significantly hindered as you begin to limit foods based on your symptoms or fear foods or food groups all together.
“Stress impacts how the gut and brain ‘talk’ to each other,” adds Kim Kulp, RDN, gut health expert, and owner of the Gut Health Connection in the San Francisco Bay Area. “This can affect digestion, and change how quickly food moves through the intestines, causing bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation. This change can often lead to fear of eating, and food restriction. Without realizing it, you may be cutting out important nutrients, which can cause stress on the body, continuing the cycle.”
Stress can cause you to reach for food to self-soothe
Emotional or mindless eating when stressed gives a quick sense of relief or escape, even if just for a moment. Of course, the big issue is that using food as a coping mechanism doesn’t solve our stress in the long run.
Individuals who struggle with disordered eating may find themselves in a loop of feeling stressed, eating mindlessly, overdoing it on the fun foods, feeling guilty about their eating habits, and then end up feeling even more stressed because they overate or potentially binged. The stress eating loop can be hard to escape from and may increase feelings of shame about food, notes Jenn Baswick, RD, MHSc, registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counsellor, and owner of The Intuitive Nutritionist.
Sometimes stress changes our diet due to simple, logistical issues like not having time to cook or grocery shop
Often, these daily tasks feel like just one more thing on our to-do list, and they can be the first to go when we become emotionally overwhelmed.
Jamie Nadeau, registered dietitian and founder of The Balanced Nutritionist says, “Stress can impact our ability to prioritize things like cooking for ourselves, taking the time to eat regular meals, or even go grocery shopping. Periods of high stress or chronic stress can result in lots of grazing, relying on takeout or just relying on less nutritious foods in general.”
If you’re in a period of high stress, I always recommend trying to prioritize the absolute basics versus trying to be perfect. Make sure your house is stocked with groceries and prioritize regular meals throughout the day. When you have stressful things going on in your life it can be frustrating to deal with what to eat. That often makes you feel like you want to throw in the towel and give up on food altogether. By focusing on the basics, you can help to lessen the impact of stress a little bit, Nadeau offers.
And if you’re looking for a way to eat healthy without the stress of meal prepping, we have thought of that too.
Our ability to be present while eating, or even notice that it’s time to eat, can go out the window under times of high stress
Baswick shares, “When we’re in a stressed state, it becomes harder to hear the nuances of our body’s cues. Being able to tune into feelings of hunger and fullness becomes hindered when we feel unable to slow down. This is why stress management can be a key factor for someone who wants to eat more intuitively.”
It’s common for stress to cause overeating too. Many of us use food to numb, Galati adds. It's more common to turn to less nutrient-dense snacks like chips and ice cream than broccoli and apple slices. It’s a normal and human response! The challenge is when these tasty foods become our only coping tool—eating these fun foods regularly can leave you feeling worse physically and emotionally, which can potentially worsen the cycle of emotional and over-eating.
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