“What’s wrong?” I asked my partner, who was shifting restlessly in my arms, searching for a comfortable spot to lie. I knew what was wrong. My body felt bony from gradual weight loss.
I was searching for a new position due to a lay off, scrambling to find a new — and more affordable — apartment, all while battling an infection after losing my health insurance. I was stressed, and the mental toll manifested itself on my shrinking body.
While most people in my situation stress eat, I do the complete opposite. I cease to feel hunger, and the thought of food, normally an object of pleasure, no longer delights me. I spend so many hours putting out fires — applying to jobs, searching for housing, finding affordable health insurance — that I simply forget to eat. If I did remember, my meal would lie on its plate, untouched, cold.
The Evolutionary Relationship Between Stress and Appetite
Although rare, I’m not alone. In fact, an American Psychological Association survey from 2015 found that 31 percent of surveyed participants said they skipped a meal because of stress.
According to Zhaoping Li, MD and director at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, a connection between appetite and stress exists, traced back to our hominid ancestors’ fight-or-flight instincts.
“There are people who respond to any stress with…I cannot do anything but run. Then there are other people who try to make themselves more relaxed or more in a pleasurable state — that’s actually the majority of people. Those people eat more food,” Li says in a Healthline article.
It’s also believed that stress can cause people to ignore their bodies’ hunger signals. According to Susan Albers, PsyD, in a Cleveland Clinic article, “Those who stop eating are so focused on their stress that they don’t hear or tune into their hunger cues.”
I have struggled with a deficient appetite since I was a child, but years of experience has taught me to answer my body’s call for food — even when I don’t feel like it.
Treating Mealtime As Sacred
Living in the competitive and fast-paced American work culture, I’ve learned — for the better or worse — to make efficiency out of every activity, a habit that spills into mealtime. I multitask: I eat while watching television, scrolling through my social media feeds and emails, or finishing a task for work. However, when I multitask, I focus too much on the distractions and not on the eating.
Now, I treat mealtime as sacred. I focus on enjoying and finishing my meal, nothing else. I set a schedule — breakfast at 9 a.m., lunch at noon, dinner at 6 — so I don’t accidentally skip a meal when deeply engrossed in some task. If I’m too prone to forgetting, I set an alarm.
Spending More on Favorite Dishes
Of course, sometimes the food in my pantry or fridge doesn’t appeal to me. Rather than skipping a meal altogether (which I oft do), I instead spend extra on the dishes that I’m craving. Ordering from a restaurant is more costly, of course, but treating myself to my favorite dishes at a time when nothing seems to stimulate my appetite is money well spent.
Keeping a Food Journal
When I was underweight in college, weighing a measly 85 pounds, my doctor became concerned and sent me to a nutritionist, who gave me an assignment: Start a food journal. I was to document my eating habits, including a detailed description of my meal, from ingredients to portion size, and the time the eating took place. Reporting to my food journal held me accountable. When I skipped lunch, choosing instead to spend that time studying for an exam, a giant empty white space next to 12 p.m. glared at me accusingly: You didn’t complete your assignment. But when I had three meals in one day listed in my journal, all empty spaces filled in with pen, I felt accomplished.
It’s difficult to feel hungry when everything seems to fall out of place, and you’re scrambling to put your life back in order. Stress can curb your appetite — don’t let it get in the way between you and life’s simplest yet greatest pleasure: food.