This post originally appeared on our partner site, Furthermore by Equinox.
Equinox offers nutrition coaching from certified instructors because it’s not just about what you eat, it’s about how you eat. So, we created Habit Forming, a monthly series devoted to bringing you actionable eating habits to help achieve your nutrition goals. This, the fourth installment, delves into the relationship between stress and appetite.
There’s a deep connection between your mind and stomach, which is sometimes called the ‘second brain,’ explains Dominic Matteo, level 2 masterclass instructor at Precision Nutrition in Cleveland. That’s why the impact of negative emotions like stress and anxiety may cause overeating. “People tend to want to fill a void with food,” says Bethany Snodgrass, holistic health coach and operations manager at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in New York City. They may feel as if a stressful event has taken something away from them and that food will fill the gap, she says.
Others experience the opposite effect and drastically reduce their eating when too many stressors impact their lives. “Nourishment is the last thing on someone’s mind if they’re so overwhelmed that the thought of food is nauseating,” Snodgrass explains.
Few people only fall into one camp. These physical and mental responses to heightened stress often depend on the situation at hand. Regardless, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of these challenges.
Furthermore asked Matteo, Snodgrass, and more experts about ways you can remain true to your nutritional goals and practice emotional self-care.
The challenge: I’m so stressed, I’m eating everything in sight.
In addition to the aforementioned emotional reasons for overeating, there’s a physiological explanation as well: Your adrenal glands may pull minerals and vitamins away from other organs to produce stress hormones, such as cortisol, which could result in hunger, as your body needs to regain nutrients. In these situations, many reach for high-fat, high-sugar comfort foods, because they release the feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. “It’s easy to retreat and soothe those feelings with food,” says Matteo.
Track your feelings and food. Keep a log of when and what you’re eating, the quantities you’re consuming, and how you feel before, during, and after. This may help to identify emotional-eating triggers. “A lot of times, you don’t catch yourself in those behaviors unless you track them,” says Lauren Deluca, Tier X coach at Gold Coast in Chicago.
Fuel up with healthy fat. If you’re an emotional eater, you’re likely drawn to junk foods in moments of stress because they trigger those happy chemicals mentioned above. Instead of reaching for fries, keep good-for-you snacks handy at work and home, including nuts and other foods high in healthy fats, and antioxidant-rich ingredients like berries, recommends Leigh Taylor Weissman, Equinox’s New York–based manager of food and beverage.
Just breathe. Before you grab something to eat, take some deep breaths. It can help you to destress, and thus realize you don’t need to consume anything in that moment. Count to ten while slowly inhaling and exhaling, or do face-down crocodile breathing to focus on belly breaths. “Breathing drills help put the thinking part of your brain back in control, as opposed to it being hijacked by your emotions,” Matteo says.
The challenge: I’m so stressed, I’ve completely lost my appetite.
When you’re overwhelmed and anxious, your body may release the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can derail your appetite and potentially cause nausea. Over time, this might lead to unwanted weight loss and disordered eating. Professional struggles and interpersonal challenges like illness or breakups often incite this kind of physical response. It’s not always a negative situation—heightened events like weddings, athletic competitions, and performances can introduce adrenaline as well. “People don’t want to consume food because they are getting the energy they need from the adrenaline, so they say, ‘I’m not hungry,’” Weissman says.
Eat like clockwork. Even if you don’t feel hungry, it’s important to stick to a regular dining routine. “[Your body’s] hunger and fullness cues are only regulated when you’re eating consistently. A small meal around the same time every day could bring back more of the response to eat,” says Deluca.
Seek comforting foods. Find something palatable when you’ve lost your appetite, even if it might be outside of your usual nutritional preferences, like a carb-forward dish that you might ordinarily avoid. If possible, pair it with something healthier so that you’re still nourishing yourself. “You have to get something inside of you to let your body know that you’re not starving,” Snodgrass says. “Starving yourself is just helping continue the cycle of stress internally.”
Plan meals ahead of time. Try to create a weekly meal plan by prepping, scheduling, or ordering ahead of time. “This doesn’t have to be elaborate; just knowing things like, ‘I’m eating here for breakfast, bringing this for lunch, and cooking that for dinner’ can make a huge difference in the overall allostatic load [the physical effects of stress] a person is dealing with,” says Matteo.
Do low-intensity exercise. Explore more restorative movements to increase your energy and appetite and, perhaps, provide endorphins. Exercise can be a stress reliever, but when you haven’t been eating as much, an intense workout may start to break down your immune system. “Go for a long walk or do some gentle yoga or another activity where you are getting the blood flow going while also focusing on breathing,” Matteo suggests.