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How Stress Can Cause a Loss of Appetite—And 5 Ways to Handle It

Vogue logo Vogue 7/13/2020 Akili King
© Vogue

During this unprecedented time, we’re all processing stress differently. But for many in lockdown, the realities of socially distanced living are having a dramatic impact on our eating habits.

“When experiencing stress, appetite can be affected in a few different ways,” explains Joi Britt, a clinical social worker and therapist at DRK Beauty Healing. “Some people find themselves binge eating as a way to cope with the feelings of being overwhelmed, while others find themselves not eating for extended hours or days.” If it’s the latter, you may find that no matter how much you meal prep, cook, or try to stock the house with the necessary foods to keep your body healthy, it’s still difficult to maintain a healthy appetite. If this is the case, begin the process of rebuilding your appetite by identifying your stressors. “Once you have done that, gauge ways that you might be able to reduce the stress; be it asking for help, support, or taking a break,” Britt says.

Similarly, culinary and integrative dietitian Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, says that appetite loss can be “your body’s fight-or-flight response to acute stress and anxiety,” and that long term, some people might turn to food as a source of stress relief. Ultimately, what it comes down to is “tuning into how stress affects your body specifically,” says Moore. This is especially important for those within the Black community, who are experiencing heightened levels of stress in the face of the current racial uprisings; emotions that are only compounded by the fact that Black people are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates. Here, Britt and Moore offer their tips on handling loss of appetite in the face of immense stress.

Set a Schedule

If patients are still having a hard time after taking the first steps to restore their appetite, Britt encourages them to make a schedule, or set an alarm as a reminder to eat. “Start with foods you are able to tolerate, and make sure you are regularly drinking water,” she says. Moreover, she emphasizes that added structure might be essential to those suffering most in this time, noting its value to Black individuals not only coping with grief and pain in this time of civil unrest, but experiencing loss due to the coronavirus.

Embrace Therapy

As appetite loss persists, it’s important to consider outside support. “People, especially Black people, should check in with themselves and take an introspective look into their mental health,” says Britt. “With the support of a therapist, you can learn new tools and skills that can help you to better cope with stress in order to ensure you are eating, sleeping, and functioning at your best.” During this time, she’s helping three women of color cope through COVID-19 and the rise of racial injustices. “While this looks different for each of them, the best part is that these services are free of charge for them,” she says. “[Our] platform has committed to providing 10,000 hours of free therapy, which provides women of color with a toolbox of skills to use in the future.”

Focus on Easy-to-Digest Foods

In terms of making food choices, it’s good to find a balance between what you enjoy and what will be easy for your body to digest. “When anxiety runs high, sometimes that loss of appetite comes with a side of nausea,” says Moore, adding that if what you’re currently eating is feeling unpleasant, it’s definitely worth switching things up. Another important point: In this high stress time, avoid self-judgement with your cravings. “Give yourself some grace,” says Moore. “If you’re craving foods you don’t normally eat, give yourself permission to enjoy them. It might be just what your body needs. Sometimes food brings back pleasant memories, a sort of nostalgia that makes us feel a little better!”

Make Eating Fun

When it comes to experiencing food, the setting matters; so consider eating something you once enjoyed with people that you love. “Even if it’s virtually, you might catch up with girlfriends via a virtual brunch,” explains Moore. “You could all make tacos and margaritas or homemade french toast and mimosas so it’s as if you’re at a restaurant together.” This is one way to help yourself achieve a positive feeling around eating again.

Practice Gratitude

Speaking of positive eating experiences, Moore also emphasizes the importance that gratitude has played in her life, especially during times of extreme stress, as gratitude helps to shift your mind state and energy to a more positive place. “This has become my best bet,” she says. “I find that it helps shift my focus and improves sleep.”

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