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Negative Emotions and Appetite

Posted by on Feb 6, 2014 in Blog Posts | 4 comments

Our kitchen table is as much a stress-free zone as we can make it. If something tough comes up during mealtimes, we ‘put a pin in it’ and talk after dinner. Recently, it hit me how profoundly negative emotions can kill appetite, when something came up during the meal that was emotionally charged for our daughter.


Watching her reaction took me right back to my own childhood. It didn’t happen often, but if something came up that I was embarrassed about or when I felt guilty (I was exquisitely sensitive to guilt and shame) during a meal, I remember that my appetite instantly disappeared— and I had a big appetite. My eyes would brim with tears, my mouth fill with saliva, my face would flush and heat would engulf me, all in a matter of seconds. If I happened to have food in my mouth, I remember wanting to spit it out and swallowing with great difficulty. Even if it was something I was enjoying, the meal….was…over. I had not thought of that for so long until I saw a similar response in my 8 yo competent eater who pushed her plate away saying, “I don’t want to eat anymore.”

On that occasion, we took a few minutes to process, calm down and promise to talk later. After a few minutes pause, the meal went on and she ate a few more bites. For children who are anxious about food, or have challenges that may already make their appetite cues less easy to read, trying to preserve the table as a pleasant oasis will help support intake and picky eating. Think of it this way, with everything else going on in stressed out bodies— knots in their tummies, flushed skin, increased heart rate (stress response) it’s impossible to hear other cues. Whether they need fuel or not, they simply can’t feel hunger.

  • Start now, declare your table a stress- and conflict-free zone.
  • Acknowledge tough feelings and promise to talk about it after the meal or if you have to, leave the table for those hard conversations.

What do you think? Do you remember feeling this way? Do you see your children react to stress with a decreased appetite? Have you seen your child’s appetite bounce back after removing meal-time stressors or battles?

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  1. Zahra

    I know that, when I’m angry, I lose all my appetite. On the other hand, when I’m sad, I will eat more.

    • katja

      So interesting! Our histories also play a role in appetite. Studies in adult women who have dieted indicate a pattern of eating more with stress. Recognizing the connections is a big part. I think “emotional” eating isn’t always bad if it is not a pattern, the only coping mechanism, or feels out of control. Thank you for sharing.

  2. ABP

    I was taught since I was a young girl (age?) that it’s bad to eat when you are upset or sad because it turns food into ‘toxins’. Interestingly, at the time, I really believed it and always made a point to not eat if I was crying, waiting it out until I felt better or calmer before taking more bites of food (if it happened during a meal). While I know now that what I was taught wasn’t a scientific fact, I wonder if perhaps in a broader sense it is true.

    • katja

      In a broader sense, this is a fascinating topic! Studies on nutrient absorption with pleasure, iron absorption during stress, and weight gain if you feel guilt while eating chocolate cake are out there (and more and more research is ongoing.) I think how we feel about food, pleasure, our bodies etc plays a role for sure!