When I’m stressed, I generally have two opposing reactions to food. I eat my body weight in pasta, chocolate, and other comfort foods, or I just stop eating.
While most people associate stress with overeating and weight gain, weight loss due to stress is also common. Losing weight may sound like a positive part of stress, but it’s not. You never want to harm your body by losing weight for unhealthy reasons.
Significant weight loss due to stress can lead to problems such as nutritional deficiencies, weakness, muscle loss and more. So, if you’re on the stress-weight loss end of the spectrum, what can you do about it?
What Causes Stress Weight Loss?
If you lose weight due to stress, here are some of the possible reasons:
Stress can cause stomach and digestive problems
When the body experiences stress, it goes into fight or flight mode. In fight or flight mode, the body gets a burst of energy, which increases heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, improves eyesight and more.
To maintain this spike in energy, digestion slows down or in some cases stops completely, which can lead to gastrointestinal complaints. Gastrointestinal complaints lead to abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea or other symptoms.
Chronic stress is also possible cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or worsen the severity of the symptoms.
The symptoms of GI distress and IBS often lead to reduced food intake, which in turn leads to weight loss.
Stress can cause anxiety and depression
Stress can lead to more activity
When I am stressed or anxious, exercise always helps, walking, running, yoga, moving my body in any way. And I’m not the only one.
Physical activity is known to reduce stress while improving mood and self-esteem. In addition, nervous movements such as fidgeting, leg shaking, pacing and more are often associated with stress.
In many situations it is healthy and recommended to use physical activity to combat the effects of stress. But being overly active, especially not eating enough, can quickly lead to significant weight loss from stress.
Stress can make you too exhausted to eat
I know stress and anxiety well enough to have more than my fair share of sleepless nights lying in bed, crazy inside. We’ve all been there.
If you’re constantly stressed or too stressed, you can reach the point of exhaustion where you’re just too tired to eat, which can trigger stress-related weight loss.
Stress can cause you to skip meals
When I’m super stressed about a deadline or juggling multiple projects at once, I tend to go into overdrive and sometimes forget meals. I get hyper-focused on my work and before I know it it’s 4pm and I haven’t eaten yet.
If you tend to forget or skip meals when you’re stressed or in overdrive, by the time you finish work it’s probably too late for regularly scheduled meals. This increases your chances of squeezing in a quick, unhealthy meal that makes you feel worse.
Stress can cause nausea
I’ve already mentioned that stress can lead to gastrointestinal disorders and IBS, but stress can also cause nausea.
Just like eating is super unappealing when you’re feeling bloated, uncomfortable, or experiencing stomach aches, nausea is also a pretty effective appetite suppressant.
These are just a few of the many ways stress weight loss happens, so what can you do about it?
How to deal with stress Weight loss
1. Plan meals
If you skip meals when you’re stressed, start scheduling them by setting a timer on your phone.
To make these planned meals something you look forward to, take a short 20-minute break and do something you enjoy while you eat, such as reading a book.
If you have trouble eating whole meals, plan several snacks throughout the day as well.
It’s best to plan your meals around the same time each day. Good meal timing can help increase stress resistance, reduce inflammation, better manage gut healthand help regulates the circadian rhythm.
2. Have baby snacks
If your stomach feels like it’s in a knot or you get nauseous when you’re stressed, it can be challenging to eat large or even regular meals, so start small.
Instead of trying to tackle a huge bowl of pasta for lunch, have a nice bean salad with avocado and eat small portions.
If even tackling three small meals a day feels like too much right now, drink your calories, but in a good way. Make healthy smoothies that are packed with fruits, vegetables and nut butters.
You can add to your calories by snacking throughout the day, just keep it healthy, like a bowl of grapes or a handful of nuts.
If you manage to eat small meals and snacks, you can help prepare your body for larger meals.
3. Eat foods that fight stress and improve mood
Food is truly medicine, and while it is a healing tool for the body, it is also a healing tool for the mind.
Many foods can help reduce stress and put you in a better mood, such as vitamin B. Vitamin B helps reduce stressand can be found in whole grains, seeds and nuts, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, avocado, bananas and more.
And a simple bowl of oatmeal can reduce stress and release serotonin.
But my pick-me-up of choice is all-natural, pure cocoa. Pure cocoa or chocolate that is not full of artificial ingredients and too much sugar has positive effects stress levels, inflammation, memory and immunity and may reduce depression.
Speaking of cocoa, if you ever get the chance to attend a cocoa ceremony, do it! I promise you won’t regret it.
4. Notice what hurts your stomach
When your stomach hurts from stress, it’s more important than ever to be present and notice how everything you eat affects your stomach.
A few months ago I started having strange stomach symptoms. I’ll spare you the details, but my stomach almost always ached, and I went from loving food to never really being hungry.
After I started paying attention, I realized I had just transitioned from traveling through tropical places with tons of fresh fruit everywhere to winter in New York and a lot less fruit around me. I had also eaten a lot more rice.
So I changed my eating habits and ate oatmeal with fresh fruit for breakfast every day and ate less rice. My stomach started to feel better after a few days and returned to normal after a little over a week.
So try to keep track of when your stomach is at its worst and keep a list of what you ate that could be the cause so you can adjust your diet.
In addition to highlighting nutritional issues, food tracking can help you make better food choicesand it’s a way to practice mindful eating.
5. Choose Healthy Ready-to-Eat Food
There have been so many times when I opened the refrigerator door, saw nothing ready to eat, and thought, “I’ll eat later.”
When you’re super stressed and fatigued, preparing food is probably the last thing on your mind. If you don’t want to prepare food, you can easily avoid eating and lead to weight loss due to stress.
So instead find some local health food stores that deliver or visit your local health food store and grab some fresh or frozen meals to store for the week.
If your stress comes and goes, or if you experience sudden bursts of energy or downtime, you can also try getting started with meal prep.
6. Always refuel after exercise
If you manage stress by exercising but don’t eat enough, stress weight loss is very likely. So make sure you always eat something after exercising.
Eat something as soon as you finish exercising so you don’t forget. This doesn’t have to be a big meal, but focus on high-protein or high-carbohydrate foods, such as avocado, nuts, yogurt, a banana, an apple with nut butter, rice cakes, or a protein smoothie.
You can even buy ready-made protein drinks from the store to make it as easy as possible for you.
Eating after exercise helps prevent stress-related weight loss, and it did other benefits as wellsuch as increased muscle protein synthesis, decreased protein breakdown and more effective muscle reconditioning.
Eating protein after exercise can also help improve your performance the next day.
7. Take a break and de-stress
Schedule an hour a day to focus on de-stressing. I know that sometimes feels impossible, especially when you have a mile-long to-do list, but an hour is such a small part of your day.
Even if it means waking up an hour earlier to have extra time in the day, it’s so important to set aside time just for you to focus on de-stressing.
Here are a few ways to de-stress every day:
- Spending time outside: Spending time immersed in nature reduces stress and anxiety and improves overall health, if only for 20 minutes.
- practicing yoga: There are so many benefits of yoga including stress reduction. I love to sink into a relaxing restorative or yin flow at the end of a long day.
- Practice self-care: There are so many helpful self-care habits you can practice daily. One of my favorites is a steaming, candle-lit bath combined with some inspiring literature.
- Unleash your creativity: Creativity lowers cortisol levels. You don’t have to create a masterpiece, just create everything. Draw, paint, fill a coloring book, write a poem, etc.
8. Get to the heart of the problem
While all of these tips will help you combat stress-induced weight loss, you need to address the source of your stress. Usually, for you to be stressed long enough to cause stress weight loss, something has to have a pretty big impact on your life.
Is it a long-term project for work? A new living situation? An unhealthy relationship? Always too much on your plate?
Whatever it is, identify it and start working on how to make it less intense. Remember that while some stress in life is inevitable, you don’t have to be stressed all the time, and it’s always good to ask for help.
If the above tips and other lifestyle changes and stress management methods don’t help, it may be time to consider other possible causes of weight loss.