February 09, 2023

5 ways to build healthy eating habits in times of stress

By Dialogue

Healthy eating habits can go out the window when we’re stressed. Try these tips to prioritize your nutrition.

Do you start snacking when you’re feeling worried? Or do you have a lack of appetite when you’re anxious? Maybe you’ve noticed changes in your weight during a stressful period, even though your eating habits and activity levels remained the same.

These situations can be a result of stress. Stress can affect different parts of our lives, including how we eat, resulting in unexpected changes to our bodies.

How stress response affects the body

Most people will experience some form of stress or trauma in their lives. It could be that you’re facing a lot of changes in your life. Or your car broke down and you can’t afford the large repair bill. When we experience these events and pressures, they kick-start our body’s stress response.

Stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS triggers the brain to release stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can slow down digestion and change other systems of the body. This is so the body can reroute its resources to trigger the fight or flight response.

Occasional stress is normal and has very little effect on your body. However, chronic stress means these hormones are always present in your system. This can negatively affect your health. You might experience:

  • weight changes and digestive issues
  • disturbed sleep
  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression

Relationship between stress and eating habits

Chronic stress can trigger emotional eating. This is because the prolonged presence of cortisol in your bloodstream can increase your appetite. This can make you want to eat more high-fat or energy-dense foods. It’s why we tend to crave sweets or chips instead of broccoli.

Many people get pleasure, joy or satisfaction from food. When we experience stress, it’s natural to want to soothe those feelings by indulging in something enjoyable. This could be food or alcohol. So, when you reach for a snack, it may be because of a craving brought on by stress. And not because you are actually hungry. 

From a biological standpoint, your body doesn't want to think about finding food when there is a threat. This can explain why you might not feel hungry during a stressful work shift. But the minute you start to relax, the stress response weakens, and you may find you’re starving. For those who struggle to relax, your appetite can be significantly affected. This can lead to skipped meals and not eating enough food.

How to prioritize your nutrition in challenging times

If you've experienced weight changes due to a stressful or traumatic period, be kind to yourself. Remember that it’s a normal part of our biology. But if you would like to improve your reactions to stress, here are some tips:

Take the time to eat

It’s an investment that pays off in the long run. Here are some easy ways to make eating a part of your daily self-care routine:

  • Schedule the time into your calendar. 
  • Plan meals ahead of time to reduce guesswork and stress.
  • Turn mealtimes and snacks into focused time that you can enjoy. 

Enjoy a balanced meal and a snack if you need it

To get the most out of your meals, have a good mix of:

Those foods will fuel your body and leave you feeling satisfied. And if you feel peckish between meals, don’t hesitate to grab a snack. Hunger signals are your body’s best regulator to let you know when it’s time to eat.

Find a way to relax before a meal

A little boost of self-care can help bring down your SNS response. Find what coping strategies work best for you! Here are some ideas:

  • Take a walk or get fresh air.
  • Change your environment (eat in the kitchen instead of at your desk). 
  • Try conscious deep breathing or meditation.
  • Listen to your favourite music. 

Be mindful while you eat

Mindful eating is being fully attentive of your food. It involves being aware of what you’re eating and why, as well as appreciating your food. It’s also being aware of your body’s hunger and fullness signals. Eating mindfully can help you:

  • Slow down and take a break from the busyness of your day, easing stress and anxiety.
  • Make healthier choices about what you eat by focusing on how different food makes you feel.
  • Eat in a healthier, more balanced way.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Take the time to enjoy your meal by really tasting and savouring each bite.
  • Be appreciative of where it comes from.
  • Take in the sight, smells, and flavours nourishing your body
  • Consider eating your meals at a table, without distractions from your phone or computer

Stay hydrated

Staying hydrated is a great way to keep your stress levels down. Keep a glass or bottle of water with you and take sips throughout the day. Use your daily activities as cues to hydrate. For example, make a habit of drinking water:

  • While eating a meal
  • After using the washroom
  • Right before your next meeting

This article is meant to provide general information only. It’s not professional medical advice, or a substitute for that advice. 

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