Can Anxiety Kill Your Appetite? Why We Under (and Over) Eat

illustration of woman too anxious to eat

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Key Takeaways

  • Over and undereating are common ways to cope with feelings like stress, anxiety, and being overwhelmed. 
  • Undereating tends to be a common response to acute or temporary stress, while overeating is linked to prolonged stress.  

Maybe you find yourself mindlessly snacking after an important work call. Or perhaps an argument with your partner leaves you without an appetite. While these eating habits are at different ends of the spectrum, both are normal responses to stress and anxiety.

According to a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 27% of adults say they eat in response to stress, while 30% report skipping a meal because of stress.

“Both over- and undereating are common ways to deal or cope with certain feelings, which include—but are not limited to—stress, anxiety, and the feeling of being overwhelmed,” Nicole Roach, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Verywell via email.

This World Mental Health Day, we’re exploring the science of anxious eating behaviors and what you need to know to take control of them.

Undereating Linked to Acute Stress 

Undereating tends to be the most common response to an acute stressor, like the first day of school or being stuck in traffic.

“When the body is stressed, it activates the fight-or-flight response,” Colleen Schreyer, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Verywell. “When that happens, if we have to get ready to ‘fight,’ we’re going to divert the body’s resources away from things we don’t need in the moment, like digestion.”

Additionally, stress or anxiety are often accompanied by physical symptoms like nausea, cramping, abdominal pain, and diarrhea—each of which can “turn us away from eating normally,” Roach added.

Signs of Undereating

  • Skipping meals
  • Having no desire to eat 
  • Working for hours at a time without thinking about eating
  • Forgetting to eat
  • Losing weight

Extended Stress Can Mean Overeating

Schreyer said overeating may be more common in response to chronic stress like struggling in a job, being exposed to trauma in a violent neighborhood, or being in an emotionally abusive relationship.

“When you’re experiencing chronic stress, cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) is frequently being released in your body, which may promote food cravings and an increased drive to eat,” Schreyer said. “When people are experiencing chronic stress, they may seek comfort, and eating delicious food is comforting. It releases dopamine and it feels good.”

Roach likens that comfort to a sense of escape.

“Eating may also feel like an outlet or distraction to deal with the stress you are facing,” she said.

Signs of Overeating

  • Frequently returning for additional portions
  • Mindlessly eating, especially food in close proximity
  • Not paying attention food type or portion
  • Hiding or stashing food

How Anxious Eating Behaviors Affect Your Health

Stress is normal, and the occasional impact on your eating habits won’t harm you. But when a person goes for a long time eating very little, their gut functioning can slow down. Schreyer said this results in delayed gastric emptying—going to the bathroom less.

“This means the food moves from the stomach through the entire small and large intestine much more slowly,” she said. “This actually creates early satiety, or early fullness, when you go to eat a meal.”

Over time, the result could be malnourishment, which only exacerbates anxiety.

Constant overeating, too, has effects beyond the obvious physical repercussions of weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Roach said weight gain is linked to feelings of sadness and depression.

How to Course Correct Your Eating Habits

If you notice that you are overeating or undereating, there are a few things you can do to address it. Roach said the first step is to determine the cause of your emotionally-driven diet changes.

“If we resolve the root cause of our feelings, we can decrease the chances we will turn to food to cope,” she said.

One tactic Roach offers: Keeping a food diary. This involves logging not only what you ate, but how hungry you were before eating on a scale of 1 to 5, how full you felt afterwards on a scale of 1 to 5, your emotions prior to eating, and how you felt while you were eating.

If you’re scoring lower on the hunger scale before eating and higher on the fullness scale after eating, Roach said that’s an indicator emotions are fueling your eating rather than hunger.

A second tactic: Trying a new activity for 15 minutes in the face of stress or anxiety. Typically, keeping yourself occupied for 15 minutes is long enough to serve as a distraction from mindless eating if you’re not actually hungry. However, if you’ve completed the activity and still think you may feel hungry, Roach said it’s OK to snack.

If forgetting to eat meals is a problem for you, Roach recommends taking active measures to make sure you’re staying nourished, like setting an alarm as a reminder. Calorie-dense foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and hummus help maximize the time you spend eating.

Ultimately, if anxious eating habits continue, it’s important to seek help from a licensed therapist or psychologist.

“A professional can help interrupt the behavioral pattern, work with the individual to restore normative eating patterns, and help them learn more about adaptive coping skills for managing stress or anxiety,” Schreyer said.

What This Means For You

About a third of people either stress eat or can’t eat when they’re stressed. While this behavior is common, it’s important to get to the root cause of your stress or anxiety if you do it regularly, and take proactive steps to break the cycle of this coping mechanism.

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.