Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Nicholas Gibson
Anxiety is something we all experience from time to time, whether it’s due to a demanding work or study schedule, a stressful upcoming event or a difficult personal life.
Sometimes, anxiety can affect the way you think and feel about food, as well as your day-to-day eating habits. Some people find comfort in food when they’re feeling anxious, while for others, a bout of anxiety can result in a partial or complete loss of appetite.
Eating a healthy diet is a key aspect of giving your body the energy it needs to function, making it important to maintain good eating habits when you’re feeling anxious.
Below, we’ve explained what anxiety is, as well as how mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and depression may affect your appetite, eating habits and body weight.
We’ve also explained how you can deal with a loss of appetite due to anxiety and maintain good eating habits even when you’re feeling too anxious to eat.
Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness and fear. We all experience it at certain points in life, usually when we’re under stress. When you’re anxious, you might start to feel restless, bothered and stressed. You may even notice physical symptoms, such as a fast heart rate.
It’s common and completely normal to go through periods of anxiety in life, especially if you’re suddenly faced with a difficult situation.
However, when you experience anxiety that's persistent or unusually severe, it could be a sign that you have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are highly common. In fact, according to data from the National Comorbidity Study Replication (NCS-R), an estimated 31.1 percent of all US adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in life.
Common anxiety disorders include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
Separation anxiety disorder
Specific phobias, such as fears of flying, heights or animals
These disorders can cause a range of anxiety symptoms that affect the way you think, feel and behave. Our guide to anxiety disorders goes into more detail about the specific symptoms you may experience if you’re affected by an anxiety disorder.
Many feelings and mental health disorders are linked to changes in your appetite — your body’s internal desire to eat.
It’s also normal to experience periods in which you have a decreased appetite even if you don’t suffer from a mental health condition. For example, feelings like sadness and grief may reduce your interest in eating, especially when they’re severe.
When you’re anxious, you might feel so overwhelmed by feelings of uneasiness that eating just doesn’t feel important to you. It’s also normal to avoid certain everyday activities when you feel anxious — a change in behavior that may affect your diet and eating habits.
Over the course of several decades, some research has shown an association between anxiety and changes in eating habits, including some eating disorders.
In fact, research has found that more than 65 percent of people with eating disorders also have at least one anxiety disorder, and that their anxiety disorders typically predate these changes in eating habits.
Experts aren’t yet aware of precisely why these appetite changes can occur when you’re overly stressed or anxious, but research suggests that changes in the levels of some stress hormones responsible for appetite regulation are likely responsible.
More specifically, noradrenaline — a hormone and neurotransmitter that’s responsible for focus, attention, blood pressure, breaking down body fat and regulating blood sugar — is known to be involved in appetite suppression.
However, it’s worth noting that the link between anxiety and changes in eating habits isn’t totally clear.
For example, in one systematic review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2018, researchers looked at data from 25 observational studies to check for a clear link between stress, anxiety and changes in eating habits in students.
Although some of the studies revealed that stress and anxiety could be associated with changes in appetite over time, the overall findings were mixed, with most of the studies showing very little unintentional weight loss or weight gain in people dealing with stress or anxiety.
Even though the research findings on anxiety and loss of appetite are mixed, it’s important to be careful if you feel anxious and notice that you’ve recently started eating less.
While short-term changes in your appetite and eating habits aren’t abnormal, a loss of interest in food that lasts for more than a few days — or a complete loss of appetite — is something that you should discuss with your healthcare provider.
Anxiety and depression aren’t the only issues that can affect your appetite and cause you to eat less. In fact, a range of different psychological and physical conditions could affect your appetite and eating habits, including:
Chronic liver disease
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Chronic kidney disease
Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
Some medications may also cause a diminished appetite, antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and opioid pain medications such as codeine and morphine.
Although pregnancy is typically associated with an increased appetite and weight gain, it’s also quite common to develop a poor appetite during your first trimester.
Like with stress or anxiety-induced changes in your appetite, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider if you suddenly stop eating due to a medical condition,
Drastically cutting down your food intake doesn’t just result in weight loss — it can also lead to potentially serious health issues.
If you suddenly stop eating due to anxiety, or only eat tiny amounts of food, you run the risk of suffering from malnutrition — a condition that can develop when your body doesn’t get enough essential nutrients.
When your lack of appetite is caused by stress or anxiety, making changes to your habits and lifestyle may improve your mood and help you to bring back your normal appetite and eating habits.
Try the techniques below to treat your anxiety, restore your appetite and ensure you consume enough food for optimal wellbeing.
If you’re stressed and anxious because of a certain event or something in your future you feel worried about, it may help to try some simple techniques to relieve your stress and make your feelings of anxiety less severe.
This could mean talking to a professional therapist about your worries using our online mental health assessment, taking part in a yoga class, trying mindfulness meditation or simply going for a walk in your local park to spend time in nature.
Our guide to calming down anxiety shares evidence-based techniques that you can use to deal with anxiety whenever it starts to interfere with your daily life.
While it’s okay to occasionally have days when you don’t eat as much as normal, eating below your basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy your body needs to carry out basic functions) can, over the long term, result in significant weight loss.
To gain an understanding of how much you eat when you feel anxious, try to keep a record of your diet for a period of 24 hours. Using a notebook or app, make sure to record any food that you eat, as well as any drinks that contain calories.
This is called a diet history, and it’s a helpful resource for understanding just how much you’re undereating.
While it’s always good to make healthy food choices, when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, sometimes the best way to prevent yourself from undereating is to stick to simple, tasty foods that you know you enjoy.
This doesn’t mean constantly indulging in junk food, but it does mean that finding comfort from food every once in a while is okay.
If you’re preparing food at home, try cooking in bulk so that you can store food to reheat easily and eat later. Or, if you’re dining out, order something extra so that you can take food home for easy consumption when it’s time for your next meal.
If you find it difficult to eat because of your anxiety, try setting up a meal schedule that you can follow throughout the day.
While it might seem a little silly, setting a schedule for breakfast, lunch and dinner reminds you that it’s time to eat and may help to motivate you to take action and prepare a meal, even when you don’t feel hungry.
If you usually skip meals when you’re anxious, consider setting an alarm on your phone so that you know exactly when it’s time to eat.
When you have a decreased appetite, looking at a full plate might feel intimidating, and finishing a large meal might seem impossible.
One way to meet your daily caloric needs when you don’t feel like eating is to eat multiple small meals throughout the day. Try setting aside healthy foods that are high in calories to snack on during the daytime, including in between your regular meals.
The techniques above may help you to maintain normal eating habits when you’re feeling a little stressed or anxious. However, if you have severe or persistent anxiety that’s starting to interfere with your ability to eat, it’s important to seek professional help.
You can get help for anxiety by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, by contacting a mental health specialist in your area, or from your home using our anxiety treatment online service.
After your consultation, you’ll receive a personalized treatment plan that, if appropriate, contains FDA-approved, doctor-trusted medication for relieving your anxiety symptoms.
Anxiety can be a helpful emotion in certain situations, but it can have a serious negative impact on your life when it’s severe or persistent.
The good news is that anxiety disorders are almost always treatable. If you’re worried that you might have an anxiety disorder, you can learn more about what to look for in our detailed guide to the symptoms of anxiety in women.
You can also learn more about your options for relieving anxiety and gaining more control over your thoughts and feelings in our guide to treatments for anxiety disorders.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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