How Stress Affects Nutrition and Appetite

April is #StressAwarenessMonth , so this nutrition expert is shining a light on nutrition and appetite. Learn skills for stress management and overall health.


April is Stress Awareness Month -- are you aware that I am stressed? Just kidding...of course, that’s not what this month is about. All joking aside, stress can seriously and significantly affect nutrition and appetite -- but how?


Stress is thought to be related to as much as 90% of illness, and many risk factors linked to stress are also linked to poor nutrition. Understanding how appetite and anxiety are linked can help you gain control of your health. Implementing simple strategies for sustainable health practices is important for both nutrition patterns and stress management.


Read on to become more aware about the connection between stress and sustainable eating patterns.


What is “stress”?

Stress takes many forms, but is characterized as your body’s physical and psychological response to any stimulus (input) that you perceive as overwhelming.


The Stress Cycle

Just like many other body processes, stress occurs in a cycle or a series of steps that affect one another. There are four main steps that occur when the body becomes stressed:

  1. Physical/Psychological Response - You perceive a stimulus as overwhelming

  2. Additional Energy Produced - The body creates extra energy to deal with the demand

  3. System Imbalance - Unused energy cannot be destroyed and creates a systemic imbalance

  4. Energy Channeled to Regain Balance - The body (and you) must find a way to channel stress into a response


Experts Say Stress Makes a Bad Thing Worse

Stress disrupts physical functioning and can cause dysfunction of normal bodily processes. Health professionals in many disciplines can attest that stress is a contributing factor that makes already existing health concerns much worse.


Common Causes of Stress

Common causes of stress include:

  • Fear - i.e. exposure to toxins, inability to manage debt

  • Uncertainty- i.e. illness, weather, market changes

  • Attitudes- i.e. resenting a situation, feeling “stuck”

  • Perceptions- i.e. sense of competency, perception of past experience or available resources

  • Change- i.e. positive changes (marriage, vacation), negative changes (loss, recession), anticipated changes (pregnancy, birth, growth and development, aging)

Conditions Linked to Stress

Certain diseases show links to stress factors, such as the following:

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Heart disease

  • Ulcers

  • Allergies

  • Asthma

  • Migraines

Can Nutrition and Appetite be Symptoms of Stress?

The following image shows some of the possible symptoms of stress linked to nutrition and appetite.


Why is stress management important?

Medical research suggests that up to 90% of illness and disease is stress-related. This staggering statistic brings stress management to the forefront for many physicians and health practitioners:


"Eighty-three percent of all deaths for adults between the age of 21 and 65 are related to lifestyle."

Poor vs. Positive Responses to Stress

Some stress is a natural part of living. We actually need a certain amount of stress to produce the correct levels of energy for living and thriving in life. However, a lack or excess of stress makes the body ineffective at its jobs.


Knowing this, it is easy to understand how digestion, appetite, hunger signals, and even more can be affected. Especially if you are chronically stressed, it is exceedingly important to find positive ways to channel your stress -- before your body develops a sickness resulting from a series of imbalanced responses over time.


What Dietitians Need to Know About Eating and Stress

While stress and eating patterns are associated consistently in research, there is variability due to individual differences. Eating is linked to both biological and behavioral processes. It’s important to consider an individual’s unique needs when providing nutrition counseling.


Longer Term Implications of Stress-Eating

Research implicates stress and stress-eating can lead to:

  • Weight gain

  • Weight stigma

  • Complex disorders

  • Cognitive disorders

  • Neurodegeneration

  • Cancer

  • Diabetes

  • Metabolic disorders


5 Minute Tips for Stress Management

Many people try to handle stress by engaging in “survival mode”. The problem with this strategy is that the body seldom senses when the stressor has been removed -- so the body’s stress cycle continues.


True sources of stress relief can come from simple, five minute management techniques. Take five minutes to try one of these tactics today.


Check and Test Your Stress

Conducting evaluations is an important step to stress management and becoming aware of the signs of stress. The National Ag Safety Database has a wonderful checklist of symptoms and a Healthstyle Quiz that can help you evaluate your stress. I’ve included screenshots of relevant parts here so you know what to expect.


Symptoms of Stress


Rating Your Behaviors

4,3,2 = almost always, 1= Sometimes, 0= Almost Never


With this test, scores in the 9-10 range mean you know your health is important and are likely engaging in healthy stress and eating responses -- even when life seems overwhelming. Scores in the 0-2 range are very concerning as they indicate that you are likely not aware of the health risks you take or what to do about them. There is no perfect score or failing score; there is always room for improvement.


Remember, the results of these exercises aren’t diagnostic or definitive. In other words, these exercises aren’t the only results used to evaluate stress levels -- you need a qualified health professional to help with that process. However, these quizzes and simple checklists can help to increase your understanding and awareness of where your stress levels are at.


Rest & Deep Breaths

Rest is crucial to creating a positive stress response. Sleep disruptions alone can affect appetite and eating, so you can image what stress and lack of sleep compounded can do.


A recent study found the following:

“...deep breathing technique is capable to induce an effective improvement in mood and stress both in terms of self-reported evaluations...and of objective parameters, such as heart rate and salivary cortisol levels”

Stress has so much to do with what we perceive as overwhelming. It’s important to note that this study found that self-reported and measured data both confirmed stress levels were reduced. This suggests that even just five minutes of rest and deep breathing could have a profound effect.



Plan a Well-Balanced Meal

A consistent association is observed between eating behaviors and stress. No single nutrient is linked to stress management, but research suggests that fruits and vegetables with antioxidants may help promote healthy body responses. Additionally, whole grains and beans can help contribute to a balanced eating pattern.


Take a Break

Five minute breaks can improve performance -- take it from this recent study:

"One group received no break during the 45-minute task. The other participants took a five-minute break halfway through the task and were randomly assigned to one of five activities: sitting quietly, listening to music, watching a music video, choosing between the music or the video, or spending the break however they wished without leaving the room. No matter which type of break they were given, all of the students in the break groups performed better on the attention task than those who kept slogging away without an intermission"

Rebuild your Resources

Low calorie, healthful foods like carrots and hummus or plain popcorn can help restore needed nutrients during times of stress. It’s also important to continue to drink enough water to stay hydrated.


Spending social time with loved ones, or even just petting a dog, can increase the body’s feel-good hormones (serotonin, prolactin, oxytocin). It can also reduce the stress hormone cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate. A simple hug or five minute massage can work miracles for your stress management and make you feel more capable of dealing with a challenge.


Don’t Abuse Substances or Stimulants

Avoid caffeine and nicotine in the evening especially. These stimulants can cause a poor night’s sleep and aggravate the stress cycle. Drinking heavily can also impede decision-making and long-term, it can cause nutrient deficiencies.


Move for Motivation

It is estimated that 50% of American adults don’t get the recommended amounts of aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise.


There are many physical activities that qualify as movement, including but not limited to:

  • Walking

  • Gardening

  • Playing tennis

  • Riding a bike

  • Jogging

  • Swimming

  • Yoga

Beyond stress management, exercise improves mental health and mood. It also helps with weight control and increases your chances of living longer and having strong bones and muscles.


Start Learning a New Skill

Reframing a stressful situation as an opportunity to learn something new is an evidence-based way to bust stress. It results in feelings of competency, growth, and relief. Some possible ways to use new skills to approach a problem from a different angle include:

  • Ask for input from colleagues

  • Discuss a stressful situation with others to receive insights

  • Ask questions

  • Offer or consider a different perspective

References


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Lifestyle and Managing Stress. Eatright.org. Published April 16, 2020.


Araiza AM, Lobel M. Stress and eating: Definitions, findings, explanations, and implications. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2018;12(4):e12378. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12378


Costa-Mattioli M, Walter P. The integrated stress response: From mechanism to disease. Science. 2020;368(6489):eaat5314. DOI: 10.1126/science.aat5314

Harvard Business Review. Learn Something New to Relieve Some Stress. Hbr.org. Published November 8, 2018.


Mental Health America. Rest, Relaxation, And Exercise. Mhanational.org. Accessed April 2021.