Most of us are no strangers to stress. Through all of life’s ups and downs, we are bound to feel overwhelmed at some point, whether it’s a big life change like moving (been there) or day-to-day stresses of work, social plans, and the inevitable things that are out of our control. While a little stress now and again isn’t a bad thing, research has shown that chronic stress can lead to long-term health consequences. In the short term, stress can affect your sleep and mood, and can subconsciously affect what and how you eat.
The word “diet” encompasses many factors such as what types of foods you consume, your appetite, and digestion, and stress can affect all of these, often in ways we don’t expect. In other words, stress could be sabotaging your health goals in more ways than one. Besides the direct effects of chronic stress on the body, stress can impact your brain and change your habits and decision-making, which often leads to a less healthy diet. Keep reading to find out how stress might be affecting your diet, and what you can do to help prevent stress from undermining your health.
1. You may experience changes in appetite
When you’re under stress, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, which plays a role in increasing your appetite and your body’s motivation to eat food. On the flip side, short-term stress can trigger a flight or fight response, which suppresses your appetite. Because of these two different biological responses, every body reacts to stress differently. Some find themselves reaching for comforting foods such as sugary sweets, salty snacks, and other ultra-processed foods (AKA “stress eating”) as a subconscious method to temporarily self-soothe, or as a reaction to your body’s increase in appetite due to cortisol. Others feel sick to their stomach or not hungry (due to the fight or flight response shutting down digestion), which causes them to undereat and therefore not get the nutrients the body needs.
What to do about it: Food does not have moral value; there are foods that will provide more nutrients and sustain energy and foods that spark joy but maybe don’t give you the long-lasting sustenance you need. There’s nothing wrong with reaching for comfort foods from time to time but to balance the effects of stress, it’s important to ensure you are nourishing your body with both nutrient-dense foods and comforting ones. And if stress causes you to lose your appetite, try reaching for easily digestible options like bananas, sweet potatoes, brown rice, or eggs.
2. You are more likely to eat out more often
One of the last things you may want to do when you are stressed to the max is spend extra time cooking a well-balanced meal–especially when delivery is a click away. Although there are many healthier fast food options nowadays, cooking meals at home has been shown to be associated with long-term health benefits. Even a healthier option like a salad or chicken and veggies can sneak in processed oils or added sugars. Eating at home will always be the healthier option since you know exactly what’s going in your food.
What to do about it: If there’s one thing that can help you from ordering takeout for the third night in a row, it’s having a plan. This can look like always having a few key ingredients on hand to create easy, nourishing meals, or meal prepping ahead of time to save yourself the extra stress of trying to answer the age-old question of what you should have for dinner.
3. Your digestion may slow
Research has shown that the connection between your gut and brain is a powerful one, so it’s no surprise that when you’re mentally stressed, it can take a physical toll on your digestion. As previously mentioned, stress promotes your body’s fight or flight response, which can cause slower digestion, bloating, gas, and general discomfort. There’s a biological reason for this: If there is a threat present, the body needs to put all its energy toward running away or fighting, rather than digesting food. In 2023, most of us don’t need to worry about running away from a tiger and our stress looks more like a busy day at our desk, but the body doesn’t know any differently. The biological response to stress is to halt digestion.
What to do about it: Although you might not be able to remove all stress from your life, there are steps you can take to help initiate the body’s natural “rest and digest” response. Going for a short walk after eating, implementing meditating or breathing exercises before or after meals, or sipping on peppermint tea are all ways to help promote better digestion during times of stress.
4. You’ll probably eat more mindlessly
Much like stress eating, which is often characterized as eating more or differently than you typically would, mindless eating is reaching for foods without intention. Think: grabbing a snack as you pass through the kitchen or munching on popcorn while you watch a movie or show. When you’re stressed, you might find yourself mindlessly eating more often than usual, especially if you have to rush between tasks or activities.
What to do about it: To bring yourself back into the present moment, try to turn your meals or snacks into a mindfulness activity. Be intentional and make a point to plate your food and sit down with it. Remove distractions such as your work laptop, phone, or TV. Take a pause, and a deep breath before beginning to eat. Notice how your food looks and what the first bite tastes like. Bonus: Taking time to mindfully eat helps with digestion too.
5. You may depend more on food or drinks for energy
When we are stressed, it’s likely to lead to poorer sleep (like waking up more frequently) or simply going to bed later to finish up that to-do list. If you have to stifle one too many yawns during the day, you may find yourself reaching for extra caffeine or sugary snacks to overcome the mid-day slump. Not only that, but lack of sleep increases ghrelin levels (the hunger hormone), while at the same time lowering leptin levels (the hormone that communicates when you’re satisfied or have had enough food), so you’re likely to eat more than you actually need, or cause you to reach for that cookie since you don’t feel satisfied after lunch.
What to do about it: To help combat this seemingly never-ending cycle, aiming to get 7-9 hours of sleep (even–or especially–when you’re stressed!) is key. To avoid trouble falling asleep, stop consuming caffeinated beverages by early afternoon (or about eight hours before you plan to go to bed) and have a nighttime routine to calm down the mind and prepare your body for sleep. If you do have a bad night of sleep, preemptively get more protein and healthy fats to help with satiety, and try not to overdo it on the caffeine.