Posted by Kristina Mullahoo, DtP, MSc on March 7, 2022
Kristina Mullahoo, DtP, MSc

Have you ever experienced nervous nibbling or a lack of appetite when you’re anxious? Have you noticed changes in your weight during a stressful period, even though your eating habits and activity levels remained the same?

All of these situations can be triggered by stress and trauma. Stress can affect different parts of our lives, including how we eat, resulting in unexpected changes to our bodies.


How stress response impacts the body


Most people will experience some form of stress or trauma in their lives. It can manifest in the form of physical stress – like falling off the jungle gym as a kid – or mental stress – like feeling nervous before a job interview. These events and pressures will activate our body’s stress response.

Stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS will trigger your brain to release stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. In the short term, these hormones can slow down digestion and alter other systems of your body. You may experience increased heart rate and alertness, for example. They also make stored energy in your body more available by increasing your blood sugar, so you can be prepared to confront or run away from the source of stress. This is your fight or flight reaction. 

Fleeing from danger may not be relevant when responding to mental stress, but your nervous system can’t tell the difference. Because of this, all that extra sugar your body pumped into your bloodstream to help you outrun a threat is now unused, so it will be converted and stored away as fat.

Occasional stress is normal and has very little effect on your body. However, chronic stress means these hormones are always present in your system, which can have negative effects on your health, including, but not limited to, weight changes and digestive issues, disturbed sleep, irritability, anxiety, and depression. 


Changes in appetite and eating habits

Chronic stress can trigger emotional eating. The prolonged presence of cortisol in your bloodstream can increase your appetite, making you want to eat more high-fat or energy-dense foods. This is why we tend to crave sweets or chips instead of broccoli.

Many people derive pleasure, joy, or satisfaction from food. So when we have negative emotions brought on by mental stress, it’s human nature to relieve them by indulging in something pleasurable – in this case, food, or alcohol. So, when you reach for a snack, it may be because of a craving brought on by a negative feeling, such as lingering stress or worry, and not because you are actually hungry. 

From a biological standpoint, your body doesn't want to think about finding food when there is an immediate danger to you. This can explain why you might not feel hungry during a stressful work shift. But the minute you’re done and start to relax, the stress response weakens, and you notice you’re starving! For those who struggle to relax, your appetite can be significantly impacted, leading to skipped meals and eating poorly later on.


How to prioritize your nutrition in challenging times

If you've experienced weight changes due to a stressful or traumatic period, be kind to yourself and remember that it’s a normal part of our biology. But if you would like to improve your reactions to stress, here are some simple tips:


Take the time to eat.

It’s an investment that pays off in the long run. Here are some easy ways to make eating a part of your daily self-care routine:

  • Schedule the time into your calendar. 

  • Plan meals ahead of time to reduce guesswork and stress.

  • Turn mealtimes and snacks into focused time that you can enjoy. 

Enjoy a balanced meal and a snack if you need it.

To get the most out of your meals, have a good mix of protein, whole grain carbs, and fibre-rich vegetables and fruits. The combination of those elements will fuel your body and leave you feeling satisfied. And if you feel peckish between meals, don’t hesitate to grab a snack! Hunger signals are your body’s best regulator to let you know when it’s time to eat.


Find a way to relax before a meal.

A little boost of self-care can help bring down your SNS response. Find what coping strategies work best for you! Here are some of our favourites:

  • Take a walk or get fresh air.

  • Change your environment (eat in the kitchen instead of at your desk). 

  • Try conscious deep breathing or meditation.

  • Listen to your favourite music. 


Be mindful and present while you eat.

Being present simply means taking in your current surroundings and using all your senses, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Eating a meal is a great way to be present.

  • Take the time to enjoy your meal by really tasting and savouring each bite.

  • Be appreciative of where it comes from.

  • Take in the sight, smells, and flavours nourishing your body

  • Consider eating your meals at a table, without distractions from your phone or computer


Prioritize hydration.

Hydration is often overlooked during stressful situations, when usual thirst signals are not always present. An easy way to keep hydrated is to have a glass or bottle of water with you, and take sips throughout the day. Use your daily activities as cues to hydrate. For example, make a habit of drinking water:

  • While eating a meal

  • After using the washroom

  • Right before your next meeting


How Dialogue can help

We all experience stressful moments, and it’s normal for our bodies to react as a response. However, if you would like to learn more about developing nutritious eating habits that fit your unique lifestyle, we can help. Dialogue has a team of skilled Dietitians* who will work with you to create an eating strategy tailored to your needs. Learn how to manage daily stress while building a better relationship with food.

*Dietitians: additional service with fees may apply. Insurance receipts are provided.


Visit the Dialogue application and learn more about the services available to you. 

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Topics: Health and Wellness