If You're Eating Less Due to Stress and Anxiety, This Is What 2 Dietitians Want You to Know

POPSUGAR Photography / Matthew Kelly

Various factors like stress and anxiety can lead to changes in your body such as eating more or less than you typically would when you aren’t experiencing these emotions at a heightened level. If you’ve noticed that your eating habits have changed recently due to anxiety and stress related to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s very common and you’re not alone.

“I think right now what’s happening is our bodies are under more stress than we realize – the pandemic has been exhausting. And so our bodies are responding by having less energy: less energy to eat, less energy to do the things that we were doing prepandemic,” Ayana Habtemariam, MSW, RDN, LDN, founder of Truly Real Nutrition, told POPSUGAR. As we continue to feel the effects of the pandemic, Habtemariam said to give yourself grace and acknowledge that “We aren’t operating in the ways that we were prepandemic.” If your appetite has decreased and you’re not consuming the usual amount of food, Habtemariam said it’s important to have compassion for yourself, to treat yourself with kindness, and to be gentle with yourself.

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“A lot of the time, you’re dealing with stress, or you’re just preoccupied and worried, and that’s why you’re not feeling the hunger cues,” Dalina Soto, MA, RD, LDN, founder of Your Latina Nutritionist, told POPSUGAR. Because of this, Soto said it’s important to assess your needs, come back to your body and listen to it, and to have a loose eating schedule if your appetite has decreased.

For example, instead of winging when you’re eating throughout the day (and more than likely forgetting to eat!), Soto recommends setting gentle meal reminders for yourself throughout the day. If you’re starting your day later, it’s OK to not have breakfast exactly at 7 a.m. and lunch at 12 noon, Soto assured. “We have this very rigid idea of when meals should be,” she added, but it’s OK to be flexible and break your fast later in the day.

Habtemariam also recommends having structured meals which she refers to as practical hunger. “If you know that you’re not eating for three or four hours, I would say you might have to structure your meals. You might have to put a timer on your phone that says ‘eat breakfast,’ ‘eat lunch,’ and ‘eat dinner,’ because we still need energy. We still need to get through our day because we are mentally exhausted even if we aren’t doing the same physical activity we were doing prior to the pandemic, our bodies still need energy,” she explained.

You can also opt to have five to six small meals throughout a day if you don’t want to sit down for larger meals. Even if you don’t feel hungry after a few hours of not eating, Habtemariam said, “I think it’s still a really good idea to eat because rapid changes with our blood sugar can exacerbate those feelings of irritability, fatigue, and headaches, and make dealing with this even harder.” She recommended trying to eat every four hours, but that timeframe could vary depending on the person.

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Try Not to Worry If You’re Not Feeling as Hungry as Usual

If your food intake has decreased lately, try your best not to worry. (We know this is easier said than done.) “You never want to force yourself to eat. You should be listening to your body and to your hunger cues as much as you can,” Soto said. Because your hunger cues can become skewed because of stress, Soto said you don’t need to eat if you’re not hungry. To help bring back your hunger cues, Soto recommends trying to reduce your stress levels by doing things that make you happy.

You never want to force yourself to eat. You should be listening to your body and to your hunger cues as much as you can.

“If you are at least eating at the bare minimum and you’re getting some sort of nutrition in in your day, that’s better than nothing. That’s what I keep telling everyone,” Soto said. Although you may not be hungry, she recommends trying to meet your bare minimum needs “so that your body has the nutrition to fight the coronavirus – you want your immune system to be functioning and working.”

When Soto says bare minimum, she means simply eating whatever you currently have access to and not worrying about specifics such as how many grams of protein you’re consuming at each meal. According to Soto, the goal is to try – emphasis on try – to have some sort of normalcy if you’re feeling out of whack and creating a “normal routine” with gentle reminders scheduled to take food breaks. If you’re working from home and haven’t taken any breaks, make time to take a quick break, move, and grab a snack.

What to Eat When You Don’t Have an Appetite

According to Soto, every day might be different and you may have days where you have the hunger to eat more and days where you don’t. If you’re wondering whether you should be focusing on consuming enough protein, fiber, and other nutrients, it’s not that important. “I don’t think anybody should be worrying because that just adds more stress,” Soto said. In her opinion, your main priority should be creating a routine throughout the day and “helping your body feel like it’s getting some sort of normal energy requirement.”

She also advises being present in the moment with your body and listening to what it needs as our daily routines and activities have changed. “It’s not about counting a certain amount of macros or getting a certain amount of calories in in the day. It’s sitting down and saying, ‘OK, I’m hungry now. Can I eat until I’m full?’ And then listen [to your hunger cues] and stop.” If you prefer not to have larger meals, Habtemariam recommends snacking on foods like an apple with cheese or peanut butter, peanut butter and crackers, cottage cheese, and even ice cream (because it has carbohydrates and protein) for energy.

“It’s OK to eat what sounds good and what’s accessible – even if it’s ice cream.”

When it comes to specific foods, don’t worry about not having organic or fresh produce. “Do the best with what you have right now,” Soto said. There’s nothing wrong with canned or frozen vegetables and produce. “They all have nutritional value. They’re all going to give you energy,” she explained.

Echoing Soto’s sentiments, Habtemariam said if you’re someone who watches your diet, “It’s OK to eat what sounds good and what’s accessible – even if it’s ice cream.” She also said to focus on what you enjoy and what’s available to you at the moment. And if you do have the bandwidth to maintain your prepandemic nutritional plan, go for it!

Another tip Habtemariam shared is to have social support, especially if you don’t feel like eating alone. “Hop on a FaceTime or a Zoom call with a friend and eat together. Distract yourself from what’s going on because you know you have to eat and you know you have to meet your nutritional needs. Sit there and talk and have dinner together virtually,” she said.

This is a challenging time for everyone and it’s important to “be nicer and have self-compassion because we’re all going through the same thing,” Soto said. “It’s OK if you’re having cookies, it’s OK if you’re baking more – if that’s going to help you reduce stress and feel better, by all means, go for it,” she added.

Because every body is different, figuring out an eating routine to support your nutritional needs may take some trial and error. “If all those things fail or if you still feel like you’re not eating enough, or you have a friend or a loved one and you don’t think they’re eating enough, get professional support from a registered dietitian or a therapist or both if you can,” Habtemariam advised.

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