By Sue Bush
Having a tough time getting all your food in each day? While some may struggle to rein in their diet, others may have a tough time eating enough calories, and the latter isn’t something you hear talked about as much. And while it’s true that the solution lies within food, we may have to look a little deeper than that.
In this post, we’re talking about navigating a lack of appetite, which could be due to being in a growing phase, a busy schedule, being sick, or other individual circumstances.
Whatever the reason may be, I’ll walk you through the effect stress has on your digestion, the importance of sleep, and offer some tips so you can start eating enough to fuel your body and meet your health and physique goals.
Address Your Stress Levels
Stress can be a huge factor that many people don’t take into consideration when it comes to lack of appetite, and it all starts internally.
The GI tract runs its best when in a parasympathetic state, which you may have heard referred to as the “rest and digest” state. On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system revs up when you’re stressed or when your heart rate is high during training. It’s okay to be in that “fight or flight” state at times, but ultimately we want to be parasympathetic dominant.
When we’re in the sympathetic state for too long, we can impact cortisol levels (the stress hormone in your body), throwing off digestion, sleep, and then appetite. It’s very much a domino effect with each of these factors.
So, we need to address the stress. Your top priority is making sure you get 8 hours of sleep each night. Sleep is imperative for:
- Losing fat, gaining muscle, being generally healthy, and performing well in life and in the gym. Muscle recovery and repair so you can grow and continue to train hard.
- Regulating hormones – leptin, ghrelin, testosterone, and insulin.
- Positive mood, stress, mental abilities, and emotional state
- Healthy blood pressure levels and
- Regulating digestion, metabolism and as a byproduct, your appetite.
Another critical thing to note that impacts stress is training within your recovery capacity. Training too much can keep you in that sympathetic state for longer than you want to be. In addition to managing training volume, you can help turn on your parasympathetic nervous system by doing activities that get your heart rate down – walks outside, yoga, reading, etc.
And the last stress factor we want to mention is life stressors. Sometimes there are things out of your control that add stress to your life, but it’s your job to take care of the things you CAN control.
Are you digesting your food properly?
As I mentioned above, stress and digestion can go hand-in-hand, but you can also do specific things to address digestion alone. After all, “you are what you digest,” as I like to say!
- One of the things you can do is wait to eat after you train until your heart rate has returned to its normal resting rate.
- Chew your food completely. I used to guzzle down my food as quickly as possible and then wonder why I didn’t feel good after or felt bloated. I figured out that chewing my food until it’s thoroughly broken down and then swallowing.
- Keep your fiber consistent day-to-day.
- Don’t drink too much water or liquid in general during your meals. This can flush out digestive juices and therefore make it more difficult to break down food in your stomach.
- Keep a food journal. Note what you eat, how long it takes to eat, how you felt directly after each meal, an hour after each meal – this is helpful so you can go back and look for patterns that you can improve upon.
Take these variables as guidelines and be sure to take time to pay attention to your own body and see how it responds to them. Everyone is different and needs for optimal digestion will vary.
Be aware of the fact that protein can take longer or be more difficult to digest. Find the proteins that work best with your body and your personal limit for protein in one sitting. The minimum per meal for muscle protein synthesis is around 20-25 grams, but your personal limit might differ.
Alex, for example, can eat 60-65 grams of protein in a meal and be fine. For me, my limit is around 40-50 grams, and 50 grams is on the high end and needs to be a specific kind of protein source for me to digest it properly. Point is, everyone’s ability to digest protein won’t look the same, which is why it’s important to be conscious of your own body, not making decisions based on what others are telling you to do.
If you find that proteins are more challenging to digest, try to keep your protein at one gram per pound of bodyweight and move the rest of your calories to carbs and fats. That way you know you’re getting enough without putting extra stress on your digestive system with more protein than necessary.
Also, consider taking a look at the protein sources. Those with more connective tissue will be harder to digest (beef, red meat, chicken, etc.). If that’s true for you, try salmon or another type of seafood, or even ground turkey.
Carbohydrates are typically the easiest to digest of the three macronutrients. Some choices that are easier on the digestive system are simple carbohydrates because they’re lower in fiber, whereas complex carbohydrates have more fiber. Take this as you need for your own personal needs – ex: if you have diabetes, you might need to adjust and do less simple carbs.
- Wheat can often be the cause of gas and bloating for some people, so this is another thing to be on the lookout for yourself personally.
- Rice-based products are always a great go-to for easy digestion. White rice, rice cakes, cream of rice, jasmine rice, etc. all are non-gas forming and feeling “lighter” and easier to eat.
- You might also consider liquid carbs for quick and simple digestion as well. You can find tons of options for carbohydrate powders online (we love Mike’s Mix), some flavored or non-flavored. I usually mix mine in with my workout drink and love that it doesn’t require prep or thought for a meal. Regular Gatorade or any sports drinks work great, too (not the Zero kind)!
- Other options for quick-digesting carbs: Dried fruit, fruit in general, honey, jelly/jam, BBQ sauce – anything lower volume, low fiber, and higher carbs.
Many people have trouble digesting vegetables and will try to ditch them. I will say it is so much harder to hit high carbohydrate macros with all whole foods – including vegetables. But within that, we still need to think about the quality of our food choices and how that impacts digestion as well.
I personally (and my clients) notice a huge difference from eating a lot of processed foods versus whole foods in not only my digestion but how I feel, how my skin looks, how my energy is, etc. Again, you do need to pay attention to what your personal threshold is with the amount of processed foods you can eat before it starts to impact you physically.
Now, back to vegetables in particular – while they can still feel like a lot when it comes to digestion and not enough when it comes to calories, you still need the micronutrients they offer. It’s not just about macros. Your physique will actually look, feel, and function better with nutrients in place.
However, you can limit gas-forming vegetables to improve digestion: broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, onions, etc. Choosing low-FODMAP foods, in general, will also help immensely, as they can cause SOME people to have more gas or irritate their digestion to a greater degree. Raw vegetables are a lot harder to digest, so try cooking them to help make it easier on your gut!
Dietary fats are extremely important for hormonal function and make it much easier to get more calories in if you’re in a muscle growth phase or improvement season. (They offer nine calories per gram, whereas protein and carbs each contain four calories per gram).
But fats are also something I would highly recommend playing with if you’re still having trouble with digestion. Fat is much slower digesting than carbs and protein. I have some clients who can consume a ton of fat and feel fine, while others have to limit theirs. I would recommend being consistent for a week or two with higher fats, note how you feel, and if it’s not working, try lowering them for a couple of weeks until you can find the right amount for you.
Olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil can be easier to digest than other sources of dietary fats like nuts. Same thing goes for chia seeds, flax seeds, or sunflower seeds! You can use nuts and avocado, but just be aware that they might not sit as well for some people.
- Try eating meals earlier in the day. If you can get more food down then, you won’t feel overwhelmed by how much you have to eat later on.
- Pre-planning your meals and meal-timing.
- Drink a meal (smoothie, carbohydrate drink, etc.)
- Moving more to help increase hunger.
Still have questions for getting in more food when you have a low appetite? Send us a DM on Instagram with any questions you might have!
Head to Episode 39 of the Physique Development Podcast for a full breakdown on this topic with Coach Sue, and if you’re ready to take control of your nutrition (including digestion!) and get the guidance you need to meet all of your physique goals, apply for coaching with PD here!