Stressed? How Planning Ahead Helps Your Immunity


🕑  5 min read | Dr. Aloiya Earl, MD

Science and research have long established a relationship between stress and eating behaviors.

The year 2020 has been a stressor for most everyone, as the global coronavirus pandemic has affected each of us on some level or another. While stress can lead to poor eating habits, poor eating habits can negatively impact immunity. A healthy immune system is crucially important to prevent and fight viral infections, making now an opportune time to discuss ways to maintain healthy habits no matter what outside stressors arise.



How does acute stress affect nutrition?


Stress can be acute (sudden) or chronic (long term, ongoing). In times of acute stress, the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism takes over and appetite is typically suppressed. This is because hunger is not seen as a priority during acute stress. For example, if you suddenly lose your job or hear that a family member has become very sick, the typical first response is a stomach-dropping feeling, maybe even nausea.

You’re certainly not planning to sit down and have a well-balanced full lunch after news like that. This is an example of the hunger-suppressing mechanism of acute stress.



How does chronic stress affect nutrition?


Chronic stress, on the other hand, actually increases appetite. It raises the level of a hormone called cortisol in our bodies. This hormone increases hunger drive, and it can also lead us to crave high-sugar, high-fat, calorie-dense foods. Enter, comfort foods!

Work has been stressful for weeks, months, or more. Bills are hard to pay. You’re picking up overtime. You don’t have time for the gym. The most appetizing thing when you finally come home every day is probably going to be something convenient and calorie-dense. Mac and cheese. Pasta. Pizza. Fried chicken and cornbread. Biscuits and gravy.

The reason for this is based in science. Our bodies want us to be prepared for whatever physical or psychosocial stressors are inevitably going to come the following day, so it makes us crave lots of quick and easy calories. These foods, while calorie-dense, are often nutrient-poor. They don’t leave us feeling energized and motivated to go exercise, but rather ready to take a nap. Without exercise to combat stress, the cycle persists.

Chronic stress, unsurprisingly, has thus been linked to weight gain and obesity.



How can I combat the effects of stress on nutrition?


At its core, stress is a real or perceived disruption to your equilibrium. Something isn’t settled. Things aren’t going according to your plan or your timeline. An unexpected force has thrown you off.

Like any disaster planning, the best step is preparedness. If you expect stress, it can be comforting to know there’s a plan in place that will allow you to control part of your response. If you allow that control to be your nutrition, it will serve your immunity and overall well-being.

In other words, meal prep! Plan out healthy dinner options for the week on Sunday. Find or make pre-portioned quick healthy snack options. Optimize your refrigerator and pantry to set yourself up for success by filling it with nutrient-dense options.

Box of meals in containers.

Utilizing a premade meal delivery service as part of your plan is a great option to ensure proper nutrition at a time when it’s imperative to stay healthy. 

If you take the daily decisions out of meal time, you’ll have one less stressor on your mind, and you’ll be well-equipped to combat the cravings cortisol has created in your body.

Part of setting up your environment for success is completely eliminating anything which could de-rail your diet plan for now. During stress, if you have the option to grab a healthy pre-portioned snack or the unhealthy cookies sitting right next to it on the shelf, your cortisol may be stronger than your willpower. Removing the temptation is best in this case.

The healthier options don’t have to be bland or boring. In fact, they should be enjoyable and still satisfy your hunger. Anticipate comfort food cravings, and plan accordingly. If you know you tend to crave warm pasta meals during stressful weeks, plan a similar meal with a healthier sauce or noodle alternative.

Metabolic Meals’ Italian Lasagna is ready-to-eat, macro-friendly and gluten-free.

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If you tend to stress-eat desserts, stock your kitchen with healthy sweet options lower in processed sugars.

Food choices are parts of your day that can be within your control if you know how to expect and overcome cravings, and any control in the midst of chaos is a welcome reprieve. By taking care of your nutrition during times of stress, your mood, confidence, and motivation will reap the benefits.

Dr. Aloiya Earl is a Sports Medicine Physician. She received her Bachelors of Science in Exercise Science from the University of South Carolina, her M.D. from The University of Toledo College of Medicine, and she completed her residency training at The Ohio State University. After residency, she completed a fellowship in sports medicine at the University of Alabama. She is a member of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.

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