Where's My Appetite?
Updated: Jul 23
If you've ever had the experience of knowing you should eat but feeling like your body was telling you otherwise, then this post is for you.
There are many factors that can affect your appetite. Some of these include medical conditions that need assessment and treatment, so if you're experiencing loss of appetite that may be from a medical cause, please talk to your doctor. Here, we're going to talk about mood-related influences such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
How does anxiety affect your desire to eat?
Imagine you're outside enjoying a nice snack of berries when suddenly a tiger appears behind you, teeth bared. Would you keep eating? Or would you drop those berries and run for your life?
Clearly, it wouldn't be very advantageous for you to keep eating, so your body quickly gets to work at its "run for your life" jobs and put digestion down at the bottom of its priority list. It does this through the activation of your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS controls your body's response to perceived threat and is responsible for the "fight or flight" reaction. Your heart rate will go up, your pupils will dilate, your rate of breathing will increase, and there will be greater blood flow to your skeletal muscle (so that you will be better equipped to fight or run) and reduced blood flow to your digestive system. Essentially, you body will direct its resources toward the organs that will help you run for your life and away from the organs that digest food.
Your body is concerned with running, not eating, and this is true whether the threat is real or perceived, and whether it is physical or emotional.
It is natural to not feel like eating when you feel anxious or stressed, and it's common to feel queasy when you're nervous. Intense anxiety can even cause vomiting, as illustrated by my friend's little girl who threw up in the parking lot on her first day of school. The SNS can be activated quite quickly and quite powerfully. It is a branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary functions. This means the SNS kicks in without your permission.
Depression can also cause changes to your appetite. Feeling depressed can impact your motivation and energy levels, and it can also cause you to receive less pleasure from things you used to find enjoyable. Nausea can also be associated with depression. Any of these factors can make it hard to eat enough.
If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and find it difficult to eat adequately, your nutrition may suffer. In addition to the physical symptoms you may be having as a result, you may also find it more difficult to regulate your mood when you aren't getting adequate nutrition. It's important to get help in managing your mood so that you can feel better physically and emotionally.
Here are some strategies to help you stay nourished while you work to address the issues interfering with your appetite:
1) Talk on the phone or listen to something entertaining while preparing a meal to make the prep feel like less of a chore.
2) Have a wide variety of foods available at home so that you'll be more likely to find something that feels appealing. Doing so can also help balance nutrient-rich foods with those we eat just for fun. A variety of foods are important for overall nutrition and for stimulating appetite.
3) Eat with others. It's often easier to eat in the company of people you enjoy. If you live alone, try and make plans with friends to go out to eat.
4) Utilize the support of others, whether it's a family member who can shop, prepare meals, or eat with you, or a friend who can call you during the week to make plans to meet up for a meal.
5) Use a meal plan. Work with a dietitian, family member, or friend to come up with a rotation of meals and snacks so that you don't have to be concerned with what to eat in the moment.
6) Have set times for eating. Rather than waiting until you "feel like it", eating by the clock can help you get more reliable nutrition. Eating at consistent times helps your body know what to expect and makes it more likely that your appetite will kick in appropriately.
7) Do things to help yourself relax before meals. Use a meditation app or practice deep breathing to help your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) take over. This is the part of your nervous system that works in opposition to the SNS. It causes your body to relax and begin digesting again. (It's in charge of what's known as the "rest and digest" response.)
8) Make your meal environment an appealing one. When possible, choose a peaceful and pleasant space in which to eat. Eat outside or face a window. You can also try putting up some motivating quotes or favorite pictures in your eating area.
9) Distract yourself during meals by reading, watching, or listening to something entertaining. Taking your mind somewhere else can make eating easier.
10) Take it one day at a time. If it feels hard today, that doesn't mean it will always feel this hard. Your job today is to take care of yourself today.
If your lack of appetite is affecting your health, or if you need more guidance or support with your eating, it's important to get help from a registered dietitian.