Eating Under Stress: The Why and How (to cope)

So far, we’ve covered what stress IS, and the first step to decreasing our chronic stress: getting enough quality sleep. Now we’re going to tackle a subject that may give rise to your stress response on its own: how and what you eat.

Acute and chronic stressors can bring out some pretty severe changes in our eating habits. Some of us start overeating (maybe as a distraction from our problems, or as a way of getting a quick dopamine hit). Some of us undereat (our appetites magically disappearing, often disgusted by the very sight and smell of food). It can even be a constant back-and-forth between the two. I’m genuinely sad to say that I’ve experienced all three during stressful periods of my life.

It seems that feeding ourselves well is one of the first positive habits to go when we’re under stress, and much of that is physiological. 

When you experience a stressor, recall that your body is shuttling all energy to the systems you’d need most in a fight-or-flight situation. Epinephrin (adrenaline) starts flowing. Your senses are heightened, your muscles and heart are the main recipients of increased blood flow and blood pressure. What your body is NOT doing is prioritizing eating or digesting, so naturally, any desire to eat disappears, and it can stay gone for much longer than the original stressor itself. For some, persistent anxiety correlates directly with extreme low appetite, and if the anxiety doesn’t go away, neither do

For many, this decrease in appetite is temporary. When under chronic stress, cortisol is heightened, and this hormone seems to have a particular affinity for foods high in fat, sugar, or both. Recall again that when in fight-or-flight, your blood glucose (blood sugar) rises, so your body is looking for sources to replenish the blood glucose stores it expects to be depleted after you’ve run from a bear. What better than something extra sugary and delicious? It can feel like your body is SCREAMING at you for these foods, and few are going to be able to overcome that constant noise. Pair that chronically elevated cortisol with insulin resistance due to our constantly eating more sugar than our bodies really need and you can see where the rising levels of Type 2 Diabetes might be coming from. And what’s more, eating those foods DOES cause a significant, if temporary, decrease in stress. “Comfort food” exists for a good reason.

This may seems like a lot of bad news, but having the knowledge of what your body is doing for you can make change a little bit easier. 

Your body is acting on your behalf. Our ability to quickly and unconsciously respond to major stressors is what has kept the human race around this long! Like we talked about in the first post in this series, it’s really the chronic stress, so often a product of our society and the lifestyles we live, that create problems. If our stress response rose up and calmed down quickly, as intended, our appetite would return to normal just as quickly. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. So first, show yourself some compassion. Your body is doing what it was programmed to do, and you’re responding in kind when you undereat, overeat, or both. It’s natural, and that’s okay. 

Obviously, we don’t want to continue with these behaviors in the long term, so how do we work with what’s going on hormonally while still taking care of ourselves? Here are a few options, from the practical to the more introspective.

Prioritize foods that you know you need

For the most part, we know what we “should” be eating: whole foods with lots of nutrients. The specifics are going to vary by person and way of eating (I won’t weight in on the keto vs plant-based debate here), so whether that be a buddha bowl or a grass-fed ribeye, prioritize that food FIRST. If you’re on the low-appetite side of stress, those are going to be the foods you reach to in those rare moments where eating doesn’t sound terrible. In fact, the more calorie AND nutrient-dense the food, the better it will be for you.

For those on the insatiable side of stress, don’t worry so much about the caloric density of what you’re eating (that can lead to more stress). Think about what foods would satisfy the whole food, nutrient dense criteria. Then, all I ask is that you eat those first. Will you still have sugar cravings after? Quite possibly, and again, that’s okay. You can continue on in your day knowing that you took care of your body’s nutritional needs first. That act of self-love may help you change your mind about what you eat later. And even if it doesn’t your body will still thank you for providing it with the vitamins and minerals you need to thrive (instead of living off just Mac and cheese).

Eat as much as you want, mindfully

And in conjunction with the above point, truly let yourself eat as much as you want, with one caveat: do it mindfully. In my post on sleep, I shared my bad habit of zoning out while reading political news. What I didn’t mention is how often that goes along with diving headfirst into a bag of pita chips. 

Plenty of research (like this 2013 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) has shown that eating while distracted leads to great food intake. So while we know and accept that comfort eating is at least partially based on our physiology, when we allow that to run on autopilot by eating while watching TV or working, we likely lead ourselves to overeating to the point of discomfort, both physical and mental. So the natural fix is to eat mindfully. What does that look like? Sitting down with your meal, putting your phone away, and just eating. 

Does that sound uncomfortable? Does the idea of eating a lot of your comfort food of choice WITHOUT distraction not quite hit the spot? These are ideas to tease apart (maybe while you’re eating at the table without a Netflix binge). You’ll probably find yourself eating much less than you thought you would. 

Figure out what foods give you a “health halo”

You know what I mean – you feel a certain amount of downright self-righteousness when you eat them. “I had kale salad for lunch, I am now a fitness god,” kinda feelings. It’s only annoyingAF when you share those thoughts with others. 

I’ll be honest, drinking super green juice that tastes like grass makes me feel good about myself. Are they the tastiest? No of course not. Do they make me feel like the epitome of health and wellness? Hell yes. And when I’m stressed, I’m doing whatever I can to give myself a mental high-five. This one’s quick and easy, and these are the foods that you can prioritize first in your day for both the nutrition and self-love boost!

Utilize meal prep (or a meal prep service)

Sometimes it’s just the idea of doing more work that makes eating well while stressed difficult. Let meal prep do the work for you. If you can take just a few hours one day to prep whole meals or ingredients, you’ll have something healthy to prioritize first when the midweek stress hits. I abuse my crockpot for meal prep when I’m extra lazy, mostly with this “recipe”:

  • defrost 1-3lbs of chicken thighs
  • throw in crockpot with honey, apple cider vinegar, liquid smoke, and salt/spices
  • cook for 8-10 hours on low
  • throw directly in the fridge for easy protein all week).

If you’ve got some cash to spare and the idea of doing a weekly prep is too much, there are TONS of local and national meal prep options out there to choose from. Some are more cost-effective than you’d think.

When you’re really feeling out of control, take a pause

A walk outside, 10 deep breaths, or even a nap, whatever it takes to give your body a chance to let the craving pass. In many cases, intense food cravings only last 3-5 minutes. The food will be there in 5 minutes, but your need to eat it may not be. Take a pause, and if at the end you still feel that intense need, follow the above advice and continue on.

Always ask one question

My guiding question this year is “If I were already my ideal self, what would I do?” Another way of saying this, taken directly from Kamal Ravikant’s awesome book Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It:

If I loved myself, what would I do?”

What that means depends entirely on you. Some days it might mean forcing a PB&J down despite not being hungry at all. Some days it might mean putting the wine bottle down after one glass instead of four. It’s up to you. When you take your pause, this is the question to keep at the top of your mind. What does self-love look like in this moment?

This post primarily covers what to do when you’re “in the suck,” versus how to eat all of the time. That topic is landmine on its own and deserves its own series (so stay tuned).

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