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Rest and Digest: How to Manage Stress-Eating or Low Appetite During COVID-19

Exercise and Nutrition
Author name: Lee Health


The COVID-19 pandemic is stressing us out, and those heightened levels of anxiety and worry are affecting our appetites.

Some of us can’t eat enough to satisfy our hunger pains and keep tearing through the snacks, while others have as much interest in eating as watching paint dry.

What gives? Blame stress, says certified functional nutritionist Julie Hill.

Here’s some expert advice on how to manage these challenges and optimize your health – with something you may not have heard of before called “Rest and Digest.”

How Does Stress Affect Appetite?

Stress is how the brain and body respond to a demand, says Hill, who’s also a registered dietitian with Lee Health.

During bouts of short-term stress, we get more focused, our reaction times become faster, and our strength and agility increase, Hill says. But blood sugar levels may rise in response to the stress.

“Typically, we won’t be hungry or have an appetite when we’re concentrating on a project or facing a threatening situation,” Hill says. “Different events cause different responses in different people, of course. But usually we’re not thinking about eating during these stressful moments.”

On the other hand, some stress, especially ones like the pandemic that cause long-term stress (chronic stress), can change our metabolisms.

“During chronic stress, excessive hunger can be caused by insulin resistance, which causes our blood sugar levels to remain high even though the stressful event has passed,” Hill says. “This can lead to uncontrolled hunger or no appetite at all.”

Hill says uncontrolled hunger can be a message to your brain that you’re not getting enough vitamins and minerals as well as other macronutrients like protein, fat and carbohydrates.

“Your body doesn’t say ‘I need vitamin C, so please eat an orange.’ Instead, the brain receives the message to choose sugar, carbs, or a salty food like potato chips,” she says. “These foods yield high energy, but not nutritional value.”

'Rest and Digest' During Your Meals

Hill says a regular practice called “rest and digest” can do wonders for restoring healthy eating behaviors, regardless of your hunger level or lack of it.

“Rest and digest is a response that can calm the body,” Hill says. “It can slow our breathing, lower our heart rate. In this mindful state, our bodies can optimally digest food. We’re more relaxed, which is good because it invites recovery from stress. We become healthier the more time we spend in rest and digest.”

  • Rest: Before you begin eating, set aside 1-2 minutes for quiet meditation. Time yourself.
  • Digest: Smell your food, feel your mouth salivate, feel your stomach churn, think about how nutritious your meal is. “These are good signs that you’ve told your body ‘it’s time to eat and not be stressed,’” Hill says. This will help your body to more effectively absorb of the nutrients in your meal.
  • Digest: Chew each bite of food 15 to 20 times. “If you’re not fully chewing your food, your body can’t further digest it,” Hill says. “You’ll need to eat more food because your body will miss out on the calories from that big piece of food you swallowed before completely chewing it.”
  • Rest: When we’re stressed, we tend to eat without a lot of awareness. When you focus on chewing, that’s a form of mindfulness, Hill says. “Your stomach recognizes how full you are based on how many times you’ve chewed during the meal. There still might be food on your plate, but your stomach will let you know, if you listen to it through mindful eating.”
  • Rest. Prepare a healthy meal for yourself and bring it to work for lunch the next day. “The workplace can be loaded with tempting foods that aren’t necessarily healthy for you,” Hills says. “Eliminate the stress of deciding what to eat during your lunch hour.”

Home Meals and Mindfulness

A prepared, homemade meal also saves time. Like most of us, you’re either on a 30 or 60-minute lunch hour. Ever bring a “to go” lunch back to the office only to find have 15 minutes left to eat it? You end up wolfing it down and miss the chance to eat mindfully.

Remember to avoid distractions like ringing phones, blaring televisions, or talking computers while you eat. “These will decrease your body’s ability to digest and absorb the food, and you may end up eating more than your body needs.”

And after eating, take 2 to 3 minutes to be mindful, grateful, and happy.

If you feel like you would like more support, please call our scheduling line to set up a phone consultation with a registered dietitian at 239-424-3120. We’ll help you get through this time by guiding you towards staying healthy and on track with your health and wellness goals.

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