How stress and anxiety affect food choices

Every year you make your resolutions, set your goals, and decide to be healthier. You even try meal planning to keep your diet on track, right? It goes well, but suddenly it feels like some foreign force pushes you towards failing. Why is that? Stress and anxiety might play a role in sabotaging you.

We get stressed in response to a threat in a situation, even if it only exists in our minds. Then we get anxious in reaction to the stress. Occasionally, we all face some level of stress or anxiety. If you are under stress, you might not feel hungry. It can happen because the hormones released in a situation of stress puts eating on hold. The whole body is working on the fight-or-flight response.

Long term stress, however, such as the one faced when you are under pressure at work, stuck in traffic or dealing with family problems, is the one that triggers excessive anxiety, affects your mood and your health the most.

When stress builds up, cortisol levels get high too often, and they might stay elevated. High levels of cortisol lead to blood sugar imbalances, increasing appetite and cravings, and lowering your motivation. Long-term stress sets off the cycle of fat storage. You make unhealthy choices, setting the scenario for blood sugar rollercoaster - sugar (together with fat) seems to counteract stress, and the hunger hormone also plays a role in sending you towards unhealthy foods.

Unbalanced blood sugar

At a healthy range of blood sugar levels, you feel energetic, with a clear mind and in control of your food choices. But when you are not eating balanced meals, feeding your body with processed foods, foods high in sugar (refined carbohydrate included), your blood sugar levels spike.

When your blood sugar gets too high, too quickly, it triggers an outpouring of insulin. That will bring your blood sugar down too fast, leaving you with symptoms of low blood sugar. You will probably feel tired, irritable, and anxious, craving more processed or sugary foods.

The blood sugar rollercoaster makes your body react as it is under stress, releasing various hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which cause blood sugar to rise rapidly. Insulin is once again released, and more insulin means more sugar cravings.

Your cravings probably don’t reflect your food desires

As crazy as it seems, chances are that those sudden thoughts of having donuts, chocolate, or burger didn’t come from your mind, but from your gut. Bacteria can produce substances that tell your brain what they need, leading you to feed them on their own food preferences. Cravings are more common in a dysbiotic gut, meaning that the balance of microbes was affected, and some species are exerting too much control over others.

High levels of stress, especially if paired up with a poor diet, or excessive alcohol intake, disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Fat and sugar nourish bad bacteria, thus the importance of limiting processed food. Those are also foods that lead to inflammation, contributing to depression or anxiety, which increases the chances of having a dysbiotic gut and cravings.

How you can take over control

Small steps towards improving your diet and lifestyle can help you overcome stress and anxiety, support a healthy gut microbiota, taking over control of your food choices, and improving your health overall.

The first step is reducing your consumption of processed foods, sugar, and alcohol beverages as much as possible.

Next, you could benefit from including probiotic and prebiotic food in your daily routine. Fermented foods are good sources of probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria. Kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, unpasteurized cheeses, apple cider vinegar, miso, tempeh, and tofu are examples of foods that can help feed a healthy gut.

Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber digested by certain bacteria that form your microbiota. Good sources are raspberries, figs, artichokes, green peas, broccoli, okra, chickpeas, lentils, beans, flaxseed, chia seed, and nuts.

As for lifestyle, reduce your stress levels with meditation or breathing techniques, add some exercise to your daily routine, and improve your sleep quality. They all help manage stress and anxiety, being essential to improve gut health, and put you in charge of your food choices.