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Acute or chronic stress can affect your appetite, potentially leading to over- or under-eating and making it difficult to eat consistent, healthy meals.
But a little planning and following some simple principles can help you keep a healthy routine even during stressful times, according to experts.
Nutritionists recommend sticking to a schedule of regular meals, even if that means setting a timer to remind you, including plenty of protein, healthy fats, and fresh produce
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Reading the news is enough to make you lose your appetite, according to nutritionists. Stress can have a huge affect on your ability to eat well, making it difficult to find the time or energy to prepare healthy meals, and it might even cause you to skip meals altogether. And irregular eating can lead to more stress, mood swings, and worse overall health and wellbeing.
“Things are bad enough right now without adding hanger,” registered dietitian Rachael Hartley, told Insider. “The most important aspect of nutrition is that you’re eating enough. Stress response can diminish appetite, but it doesn’t change our need for food.”
Fortunately, there are some simple solutions if you don’t have the time, energy, or appetite to prepare and eat healthy, nutritious meals. A little preparation, some simple shortcuts for pulling together nutritious meals, and a good routine are all key to staying nourish (and hydrated!) even during these trying times, according to experts.
Create a schedule and stick to it, even if that means setting a timer for regular meals
The first step toward maintaining healthy eating habits under stress is creating a routine, according to Brigitte Zeitlin, a registered dietitian and owner of BZ Nutrition.
That can help you remember to eat consistently if you lose your appetite when your stressed, and also rein in any wayward snacking that causes you to over-eat, too.
“Human beings naturally feel more comfortable when there are boundaries. A structure to your day will help naturally ease some stress and anxiety, and add a little bit of self-care,” she said.
Make a rule not to scroll on social media before breakfast
That schedule can be especially important first thing in the morning, when it might be tempting to wake up and immediately start scrolling on social media.
Zeitlin recommends avoiding any type of screen for the first 30-45 minutes after you wake up to give yourself time to drink a glass of water and eat something healthy for breakfast.
“Don’t skip breakfast, that’s a non-negotiable. That sets the tone for the rest of the day,” Zeitlin said.
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Plan your snacks
Make a plan to have lunch about 4 hours after breakfast, then a healthy afternoon snack, following by dinner, so you’re eating at regular intervals of about ever 3-4 hours.
These regular eating times are important both mentally and physically, according to Hartley.
First, unexpected changes in your eating schedule can cause digestive issues, adding to your stress and worsening appetite, she said.
Second, if stress has interfered with your natural hunger cues, a routine is key to fueling your body and brain, even if you have to set a timer on your phone to stay on track.
“Setting a timer might seem silly but it can work because it serves as an external reminder at a time when your stomach cues aren’t doing that,” Hartley said.
Include some protein, carbs and fat in each meal
As for what to eat, obsessing over labels and calorie counting can add to the stress of eating. The experts recommend focusing on nutrient instead, particularly including a balance of macronutrients (fats, carbs, and protein) when you eat. Or, as Zeitlin says, the two Ps — “If you make sure you’re getting a protein and a produce when you eat, you’ll be fine. You won’t have to know the science behind it and you’ll feel good,” she said.
For protein, good options include eggs, yogurt, fish, chicken, meat, nuts and nut butters, all of which also have healthy fats. For vegan or vegetarian choices, hummus, tofu and legumes are good sources of protein.
For produce, keep things simple by sticking to convenient options wherever possible, such as buying pre-cut veggies and fruits or stocking up on frozen produce (which is just as nutritious as fresh).
It’s possible to keep this balance even if you don’t feel like cooking, too. Hartley recommends a “snack plate” with 3-4 varieties of foods to hit all the major categories. For instance, you might combine items you can easily grab from the fridge or pantry such as bagel or pita chips with smoked salmon, cream cheese, or hummus, and some type of vegetable. Or you could try a medley of fruit, granola, and yogurt.
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Don’t forget to stay hydrated
Finally, a key part of nutrition is remembering to drink plenty of water, too.
If you’re not a fan of plain water, Zeitlin suggests opting for sparkling waters or seltzer, or getting creative by adding flavor with citrus fruits or frozen berries as ice cubes. Tea and coffee are fine too, and are a great source of antioxidants, although caffeine can be a diuretic and should be consumed in moderation.
It’s best to avoid sugary sodas and juices, however.
“High sugar items can make your blood sugar spike quickly — initial jolt of energy, but can make it drop quickly too,” Zeitlin said, further interfering with your overall appetite and energy levels.
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