When I’m stressed, I generally have two polar opposite reactions to food. I either eat my body weight in pasta, chocolate, and other comfort food, or I just stop eating.
While most people relate stress to overeating and weight gain, stress weight loss is also common. Losing weight might sound like a positive component of stress, but it’s not. You never want to harm your body by losing weight for unhealthy reasons.
Significant weight loss from stress can lead to problems like nutrition deficiency, weakness, muscle loss, and more. So, if you’re on the stress weight loss side of the spectrum, what can you do about it?
What Causes Stress Weight Loss?
If you’re experiencing weight loss from stress, here are some of the possible reasons:
Stress Can Cause Stomach and Digestion Problems
When the body experiences stress, it goes into fight or flight mode. In fight or flight mode, the body receives a burst of energy, which increases heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, enhances vision, and more.
To maintain this spike in energy, digestion slows down, or in some cases, stops completely, which can lead to gastrointestinal distress. Gastrointestinal distress leads to stomach pains, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or other symptoms.
Chronic stress can also cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or intensify the severity of symptoms.
The symptoms of gastrointestinal distress and IBS commonly lead to a reduced food intake, which in turn leads to weight loss.
Stress Can Cause Anxiety and Depression
Chronic stress can lead to many psychological disorders, including general anxiety disorder. Both general anxiety disorder and less severe levels of anxiety often lead to weight loss.
Anxiety isn’t the only result of stress; stress is also associated with the development of depression. For some people, depression can cause a decrease in appetite, which can lead to weight loss.
Stress Can Lead to More Activity
When I’m stressed or anxious, movement 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. Plus, nervous movements like fidgeting, leg shaking, pacing, and more are commonly associated with stress.
In many situations, using physical activity to combat the effects of stress is healthy and recommended. But if you’re too active, especially while not eating enough, it can quickly lead to significant stress weight loss.
Stress Can Make You Too Exhausted to Eat
I know stress and anxiety well enough to have experienced more than my fair share of sleepless nights laying in bed, internally freaking out. We’ve all been there at some point.
Stress is known to cause reduced sleep duration and increased sleep disturbances.
If you’re constantly stressed out or too stressed out, you might reach the point of exhaustion where you’re just too tired to eat, which can cause stress-related weight loss.
Stress Can Make You Skip Meals
When I’m super stressed about a deadline or juggling multiple projects at the same time, I tend to go into work overdrive, and sometimes forget about meals. I get hyper-focused on work, and next thing I know, it’s 4 pm, and I haven’t eaten.
If you tend to forget about or skip meals when you’re stressed or in work overdrive, by the time you’re done working, it’s likely 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 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 bloated, uncomfortable, or suffering from stomach pains, nausea is a pretty effective appetite suppressant too.
These are just some of the many ways that weight loss from stress happens, so what can you do about it?
How to Deal With Stress Weight Loss
1. Schedule Meals
If you skip meals when you’re stressed, start scheduling them by setting a timer on your phone.
To make these scheduled meals something you can look forward to, allow yourself to take a quick 20-minute break, and do something you enjoy while you eat, like reading a book.
If you’re struggling to finish whole meals, schedule multiple snacks during the day too.
It’s best to schedule your meals around the same time every day. Proper meal timing can help increase stress resistance, reduce inflammation, better manage gut health, and help regulate circadian rhythm.
2. Take Baby Bites
If your stomach feels like it’s in knots or you experience nausea when you’re stressed, eating big or even normal-sized meals can be a challenge, 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, then drink your calories, but in a good way. Make healthy smoothies that are full of 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.
As you manage to eat small meals and snacks, you can help prepare your body for tackling bigger meals.
3. Eat Foods That Fight Stress and Improve Mood
Food is truly medicine, and while it’s a healing tool for the body, it’s also a healing tool for the mind.
Many foods can help reduce stress and get you in a better mood, like Vitamin B. Vitamin B helps reduce stress, and 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 favorite pick me up is all-natural, pure cacao. Pure cacao or chocolate that isn’t full of artificial ingredients and too much sugar has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, memory, and immunity and can reduce depression.
Speaking of cacao, if you ever have the opportunity to join a cacao ceremony, do it! I promise you won’t regret it.
4. Notice What Hurts Your Stomach
When your stomach is in pain due to stress, it’s more important than ever to be present and notice how everything you eat impacts your stomach.
A few months ago, I started developing strange stomach symptoms. I’ll spare you the details, but my stomach hurt almost all the time, and I went from loving to eat to never really being hungry.
After I started paying attention, I realized that I had just gone from traveling around tropical places with tons of fresh fruit everywhere to winter in NY and way less fruit around me. I had also been eating a lot more rice.
So, I changed my eating habits and had oatmeal with fresh fruit for breakfast every day, and ate less rice. My stomach started feeling better after a couple of days and went back to normal after a little more than 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 have caused it so that you can modify your diet.
In addition to bringing awareness to dietary problems, food tracking can help you make better food choices, and it’s a way to practice mindful eating.
5. Choose Healthy Pre-Made Food
There have been so many times when I’ve opened the fridge door, saw that there was nothing ready to eat, and thought, “I’ll just eat later.”
When you’re super stressed and fatigued, preparing food is probably the last thing on your mind. Not wanting to prepare food can easily make you avoid eating and lead to stress weight loss.
So instead, find some local health food stores that deliver or visit your local health food store and grab a few fresh or frozen meals to keep for the week.
If your stress comes and goes, or you get sudden bursts of energy or downtime, you can also try to get into the practice of meal prepping.
6. Always Fuel Up After Exercising
If you manage stress through exercise but aren’t eating enough, stress weight loss is very likely. So make sure to always eat something after your exercise.
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 carbohydrate foods, like avocado, nuts, yogurt, a banana, an apple with nut butter, rice cakes, or a protein smoothie.
You can even buy premade protein drinks at the store, to make it as easy as can be.
Eating after you exercise will help prevent stress weight loss, and has other benefits too, like increased muscle protein synthesis, reduced protein breakdown, and more effective muscle reconditioning.
Eating protein after you exercise can also help improve your performance the next day.
7. Take a Break and De-stress
Schedule one hour a day where you focus on de-stressing. I know that feels impossible sometimes, especially when you have a mile-long to-do list, but one 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, putting time aside that’s only for you to focus on de-stressing is so important.
Here are a few ways you can de-stress every day:
- Spend Time Outside: Spending time immersed in nature reduces stress and anxiety and improves overall health, even if it’s only for 20 minutes.
- Practice Yoga: There are so many benefits of yoga, including stress reduction. I love sinking into a relaxing restorative or yin flow at the end of a long day.
- Practice Self Care: There are so many beneficial self-care habits you can practice daily. One of my favorites is a steamy hot, candle-lit bath combined with some inspiring literature.
- Unleash Your Creativity: Creativity reduces cortisol levels. You don’t have to create a masterpiece, just create anything. Draw, paint, fill a coloring book, write a poem, etc.
8. Get to the Root of the Problem
While all of these tips will help you fight off weight loss from stress, you must get to the root of your stress. Usually, to be stressed out long enough to cause stress weight loss, something has to be having a pretty big impact on your life.
Is it a long term project for work? A new living situation? An unhealthy relationship? Constantly having too much on your plate?
Whatever it is, identify it, and start working on how you can make it less intense. Remember, while some stress in life is inevitable, you don’t have to be stressed all the time, and it’s always okay to ask for help.
If the tips above and other lifestyle changes and stress management methods don’t help, it might be time to consider other potential causes of weight loss.