Not hungry, but still need to eat.
January 25, 2009 12:33 PM   Subscribe

What do you eat when, for emotional reasons, you can't eat?

Thanks to some emotional stress, I haven't been eating well over the past few months. I'm losing some weight, which is a nice side effect, but I've also been sick more than usual lately (three colds in three months). Half the problem is simply forgetting to eat, but even when I do remember I have a hard time eating enough because my stomach hurts when I'm stressed.

The other day I took another emotional hit and I suspect I'm going to be having even more problems eating, but I can't afford to be sicker.

What should I do? Vitamins? What kind? Is a multi-vitamin enough or should I double up on certain things? (I'm a 35-year-old male.) What kinds foods are both easy to keep around and will do the most good when I can eat them?
posted by crickets to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Miso soup. There are instant packets you can buy. Not the most caloriffic, but tends to make me feel better.

Oatmeal (also comes instant in packets) is also comforting and requires minimal effort. You might want to add a few nuts to a serving.

These are just food to comfort you and maybe fatten you up a little. Vitamin-wise, I don't know, but surely someone will recommend B-3 for stress. C is also regarded as good for helping avoid illness.

Sorry you're having such a hard time; hang in there.
posted by amtho at 12:42 PM on January 25, 2009

My solution is to take both a multivitamin and a B-complex. Just one of each every morning, and it makes a big difference in my energy level and mood when my eating schedule is wonky. I also find "astronaut food" helpful in these situations: ProMax, Clif bars and other hi-carb & hi-protein bars make a nice bridge to the next time you can have a meal. A handful of tofu cubes in cheap ramen is also quick and easy, as is beef jerky, cheese and other "good" snacks.
posted by rhizome at 12:48 PM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I have a hard time eating, I stock up on stuff like Ensure. It's not terribly enjoyable, but at least you get some calories and vitamins.
posted by kamikazegopher at 12:49 PM on January 25, 2009

I guess I would try stuff that has a lot of nutrition even in small amounts since it seems like you'd want each time you eat to be as nutrient packed as possible but nothing too crazy since your stomach is so sensitive. Hard boiled eggs, whole grain oatmeal (throw in nuts and dried fruit), whole wheat tortillas with a nut butter and banana, yogurt if your stomach can take it. These are my standbys for convenient, fast, travel/keep well and a decent balance of digestible and tasty.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 12:53 PM on January 25, 2009

p.s. Good luck with everything. I hope things get better soon.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 12:55 PM on January 25, 2009

One way to help get your calorie intake up is to drink things like milk and juice (or even Gatorade) that have some caloric value to them--if you don't feel like eating, you may still be fine with drinking liquids. Vitamins are probably a good idea, too.
posted by fermion at 1:02 PM on January 25, 2009

Been there.

One thing that worked for me was those Campbell's soup-in-hand things. They require no effort to prepare (and result in no dishes to wash). Plus, there's no chewing involved, so there's even less effort expended.

Be careful with vitamins. Taking them on an empty stomach can be really uncomfortable.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:03 PM on January 25, 2009

I once read somewhere (here?) that anyone who lives alone should have easily prepared food around for the days when they've almost forgotten to eat dinner. I've found that advice invaluable, even though what I eat "in a pinch" is nothing to be really proud of. It beats not eating, though.

Unfortunately, very few of the foods that work for me for that--Chef Boyardee, mac n cheese, soup--are going to be great for someone who is battling depression/illness. I'd add some stocks of junky, empty calories (especially soup--easy on the stomach), but what's really going to make a big difference are fruits and vegetables. A big box of Clementines might do. You also might try to squeeze in some stuff with B vitamins--bananas, tuna fish, etc. And potatoes. Potatoes are great--you can cook them in the microwave and they are calorie and nutrient dense.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:05 PM on January 25, 2009

So sorry to hear that things are hard for you right now! You need to replace the B vitamins daily since things like stress, caffeine, smoking, alcohol consumption deplete them really quickly. Get a natural Vitamin B Complex (or Compound) because the 6 B vitamins are all necessary & work best together. Vitamin C is a must, and so is a Calcium-Magnesium supplement - If you're not eating well and you are already thin then you will lose both bone and muscle mass. You want to also make sure your electrolytes are up, so eat potassium rich foods. Brazil nuts are packed with potassium and you only need a couple of big ones to get a full day's worth. I carry a bag of them around in my purse because I'm constantly on the go and have haphazard mealtimes. I'll also resort to meal replacement drinks, but they are not enough. I also carry a singe serving of V8 veg cocktail for midday nutrition.

Really, you need to force yourself to eat regularly and properly. Preparing at least one proper meal at home each day will keep you from going bonkers while life is being so challenging to you. You have favourite foods, keep stocking your kitchen with them & use them. It might be sloggingly difficult to get yourself in there to chop, steam, boil, roast, whatever, but it will really help your frame of mind to be caring for yourself. You don't have to use the stove or the oven, eat all fresh, raw foods for the time being. You can easily consume all food groups without actual cooking. Cheese, whole grain breads, basic veggies, cold cuts, etc. You can get pre cooked chicken that hasn't been processes or spiced. Stuff that you can pull out of the fridge, chop to size and throw on a plate.
posted by zarah at 1:06 PM on January 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

When going through major emotional trauma I lived on Ensure (or the local generic equivalent) and Clif bars. It's not tasty, but you force yourself to drink or eat one unit (a bar or a shake) three times a day, and then relax, because you're getting fed; you won't die from that. Also, this needs no cooking or cooling which makes it easier. Get as much exercise as you can, and drink lots of fluids. Things will get better but take care of yourself while you wait it out. Best of luck!! You can email me if you want to talk to someone.
posted by The otter lady at 1:07 PM on January 25, 2009

Smoothies with frozen fruit and fruit juice that you can add supplements, too, as well as some kind of protein powder or nut butter - only ingredients you can have on hand, that won't go off.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:08 PM on January 25, 2009

Carnation Instant Breakfast, protein bars, hardboiled eggs. I have so been there.
posted by sweetkid at 1:09 PM on January 25, 2009

What should I do? Vitamins? What kind? Is a multi-vitamin enough or should I double up on certain things? (I'm a 35-year-old male.)

I feel like a corporate shill because I *just* linked these in another AskMetafilter thread, but, here.

I frequently (like, twice a week) forget to eat entirely for a day (sometimes multiple days back when I was unemployed) - those things literally hold me together. Three days without them and my body begins to fall apart. It's terrifyingly drastic.

As for food - chicken and turkey are both healthy, tasty, and meat in general packs more vital proteins per gram than anything else.

Here's something ridiculously easy to make: toast and butter two halves of a bagel (for carbs), put down a few leaves of lettuce (need SOME sort of vegetable), and put down a layer of these. It's a better-tasting, more filling chicken sandwich.
posted by Ryvar at 1:11 PM on January 25, 2009

I'm a person who can't eat when I get stressed out. This sucks because not only is eating sort of great, but something in my unwell brain says "you know if you eat at this point you're just going to feel WORSE" which means I put it off even longer. So when I'm having this sort of trouble I focus on what I can eat that will solve the immediate "I'm in need of nutrition even though I'm not hungry" problem and basically try to focus on what foods won't make me feel worse.

So, I keep this stuff around

- greek strained yogurt - low fat decent calories and high protein. You can add nuts, flavorings, wheat germ, fruit, whatever. Tastes like baby food but doesn't have a ton of sugar and sticks to your ribs
- cans of lentil soup - progresso has a decent brand. one can has decent protein, salt [it's easy to space out on salt and wind up making yourself feel truly terrible] and fiber.
- finger fruits - apples and bananas and dried apricots, stick one in your mouth when you can remember
- nuts - often a little high in fat for day to day for me, but perfect when I'm not eating well
- power bars - sugary but decent protein if you need it for some reason
- beef jerky - keeps forever
- high protein/fiber cereal - I eat that Kashi Good Friends stuff, with a cup of milk it's a whole meal for me and the fiber can be good if you're getting weird digestive problems. Cereal is the closest thing I have to comfort food when I'm feeling blagh

I avoid, sweets, juices, alcohol, too much caffeine [but keep drinking a cup o joe in the morning to avoid headache] and really gut stuffing meals and empty calories that just make me shaky. Whiile I agree with zarah that taking care of yourself including feeding yuorself well can be a part of getting OUT of a bad emotional space, I also know from personal experience that it's rarely that easy. Good luck and I hope this passes quickly for you.
posted by jessamyn at 1:20 PM on January 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

When I had a hard time eating due to stress/anxiety the doctor recommended popsicles and Gatorade to stay hydrated. There's also liquid vitamins which I tried but they are *nasty*.
posted by getawaysticks at 1:28 PM on January 25, 2009

I've been there. Ensure/Boost and protein bars helped me feel like I wasn't wasting away from malnutrition on top of everything else. Trader Joe's is a good resource for easy frozen stuff like cooked frozen chicken breasts or enchiladas. I just microwave them. When I couldn't deal with cooking at all, having bagels in the freezer and hard boiled eggs was good, too. Also - dried fruit. I think that was my diet during 2006 or so. My best to you.
posted by wens at 1:37 PM on January 25, 2009

I know exactly how you feel.

I try to find a few key foods that I really love that are simple to make and keep them around. My list is similar to Jessamyn's. Greek strained yogurt (with a little honey), high quality (relatively healthy) canned soup (Amy's or Wolfgang Puck's are good), nuts, high quality cheese, hummus (with pita, cucumber, carrots, or celery), peanut butter, eggs, smoked fish, olives.

Basically, I have to force myself to cook, so I just have a few vegetables around the house to cook when I am in the mood. If you can, drink tea, even an herbal calming tea, and drink it slowly. It will make you feel better.
posted by hazyspring at 1:51 PM on January 25, 2009

My go-to for "I am not hungry but I intellectually know I should eat something" is usually a cup of some kind of broth with a handful of frozen peas and maybe a handful of tiny pasta. Dump everything into a pot and heat.

Actually just intellectually knowing I am still able to keep it enough together to get nutrition into myself is a comfort, because at some level I tell myself, "well, look at that, I'm taking care of my physical needs, I'm not too far gone yet."

Good luck to you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:00 PM on January 25, 2009

When my friend died I could do nothing but suck a chocolate milkshake ("frappe" in these parts) from a straw. Kept me going, and was filling too.
posted by Melismata at 2:16 PM on January 25, 2009

What everyone else said, but cartons of Muscle Milk worked better for me than Ensure or milkshakes. It wasn't a chore to drink them, and I knew I was getting enough protein to last all day. You shouldn't have as much of problem keeping your lean muscle tissue, either.

Here's a paragraph I included in another thread about the benefits of B3, niacin:

When I'm feeling at my absolute worst, I take 250mg of niacin and, about ten minutes later, wonder why I was ever freaking out in the first place. Here's why:

Niacin is known as a natural tranquilizer. In a study on rats, niacin had similar effects to valium on the turnover of serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine, and GABA in the areas of the brain that are thought to be affected by anxiety—without being addictive. Some experts go so far as to call niacin "Nature's Valium." Niacin also helps decrease excess lactic acid levels and episodes of low blood sugar/hypoglycemia (from adrenal fatigue).

The textbook description of anxiety neurosis exactly matches the symptoms of vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency: hyperactivity, depression, fatigue, apprehension, headache, and insomnia. It has been shown in animals to work in the brain in ways similar to drugs such as benzodiazepines (Valium-type drugs) that are used to treat anxiety. One study found that niacinamide (not niacin) could help people get through withdrawal from benzodiazepines, which is a common problem. A reasonable amount of niacinamide to take for anxiety, according to some doctors, is up to 500mg four times per day.

Niacinamide locks onto the same receptor sites in the brain as do tranquilizers such as Valium, and is a natural tranquilizer. The manufacturer of valium is also the worlds largest manufacturer of niacinamide. [Nature 278: pp.563-5,1979]

Vitamins are good, good stuff.
posted by aquafortis at 2:59 PM on January 25, 2009 [5 favorites]

Thank you everyone -- I have just submitted a FreshDirect order with many of your suggestions.

And thank your for your good wishes. I needed those too. :)
posted by crickets at 3:00 PM on January 25, 2009

Sometimes going to decent diner helps. The smell of the cooking, the warmth and the other people eating. Something like cornedbeef hash with an egg on top, homefries, rye toast and a side order of bacon. Small orange juice. Bring a newspaper and don't rush. Taking time to enjoy life's simple pleasures can be therapeutic.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:02 PM on January 25, 2009

Ugh, I hate the "I should eat, but I have no appetite" feeling. I would go for stuff that's single-sized and needs minimal cooking or preparation time: bananas, peanut butter, toast, yogurt, sardines, and eggs. Maybe some oatmeal, too. If you don't like sardines (which are an excellent source of protein, calcium and B12), you can try tuna instead. Just be aware that sardines are much less likely to have mercury than tuna.

Instead of yogurt, you can also get kefir which is similar to drinkable yogurt. The bacteria in yogurt or kefir is supposed to help your immune system, and it's a good source of calcium. As for the vitamins, I would stick with one multi and maybe a B-vitamin complex but definitely eat them with food. The food helps you absorb some of the vitamins, and you are less likely to have a stomachache.
posted by hooray at 3:05 PM on January 25, 2009

At one point after my Dad died, it took me three days to get through a snack-size packet of M&Ms. I just could not eat.

I've learned it's a little easier when I just eat something, no matter how tiny, on a regular basis. Dried fruit, cheese, or anything that seems even a little tempting. Canned chicken noodle soup, as pedestrian as it is, also can work. Just take one bite of something every few hours.

No joke, but bacon is a standby. And more shameful, so are Slim Jims.

For immune support, look into the supplement beta glucans 1.3. I'm in my fourth bronchitis-free winter because of it.

Have you had your vitamin B, D and ferritin levels checked?

Remember, this too shall pass.

I wish you well.
posted by vers at 3:16 PM on January 25, 2009

Mashed potato soup--you can pick up a tub of (surprisingly decent) mashed potatoes from the grocer, and warm up a scoop with butter, a little milk, and a little broth. Season as needed. This concoction, a truly inspired recipe from my mom, has gotten me safely through both the stomach flu and periods of not being able to eat properly due to being upset. It tastes way better than it sounds. Totally delicious. Plus, it's warm, soothing, comforting, easily digested, and easy on your stomach. Like the food equivalent of being wrapped up in a big blanket. Takes five minutes to make a bowl at a time, and you can keep everything either in the refrigerator or the pantry without any extra thought. You can stir in other things as you like.

Other ideas: things that smell appetizing to you. I know this seems obvious, but when your heart and your brain are too busy to think about eating automatically due to everything else going on, getting an olfactory kickstart can help coax you into being ready to eat. Also, I'm seconding cheeses, fruit both fresh and dried, fresh fruit juices to keep in the fridge and sip throughout the day, and the classic cure-all combination of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich.

I hope things get better very soon. Hugs to you.
posted by teamparka at 4:02 PM on January 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Taking vitamins on an empty stomach always makes me huck. You might try stocking up on juices and getting the kind of vitamins you can dissolve in juice. Indeed, if you have access to a juicer, you can get a lot of veggie and fruit nutrients without the bulk.

Off the top of my head: broth, yogurt (frozen yogurt-pops might get some calories in you), farina (lovely with a little maple syrup or brown sugar and some half-and-half), rice pudding, bananas.

Good luck. I hope things get better quickly.
posted by willpie at 7:24 PM on January 25, 2009

This is a bit of a different tack from other people's suggestions, but when I am feeling too upset to eat properly (which is rare but has happened a few times), what helps me is to think of what I would eat if I could eat *anything*. I mentally go down a list of foods, thinking through things I could cook or go out to eat, until something strikes me as appetizing or exciting. One time it was only chicken tenders, one time it was only soup. Listen to your body, and maybe your appetite will be jump-started.
posted by mai at 7:43 PM on January 25, 2009

Many great suggestions, but this article is good food for thought. Ha ha.
posted by sweetkid at 9:15 PM on January 25, 2009

Instant Breakfast. During the two hardest weeks of my life I pretty much lived on two glasses of instant breakfast a day, forced down agonizingly slowly. It's got a lot of vitamins, and with whole milk enough calories to just keep you going.
posted by frobozz at 9:52 PM on January 25, 2009

My current stress food is the meat and veggie sampler at my local Ethiopian place-- it's got a lot of protein, the bread served to scoop up the various stews is good for you, and it's just plain tasty.

If you don't have access to Ethiopian, maybe Indian would work? A good Indian place is like the home cooking I never had, and my local was my stress food choice during my last semester of college.

Nthing dried fruit and hardboiled eggs for home consumption, as well as oatmeal, soups, and toast. Most folks at my office, where stress is high and deadlines are brutal, use Emergen-C to fend off colds and other woes caused by lack of sleep-- but you might find that actually preparing a range of small, fresh foods to nibble on all day will help.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:30 PM on January 25, 2009

For me, chicken soup fixes even this. Once the hot soup starts going down, my appetite comes on, strong.
posted by Goofyy at 9:22 AM on January 26, 2009

I have a close friend with this problem. She usually eats plain mashed potatoes and biscuits from KFC, and drinks coke. In other words, anything that sounds remotely appetizing.
posted by thejanna at 12:03 PM on January 26, 2009

When I'm really stressed, I often find it difficult to swallow food or deal with anything that requires a lot of chewing (gag reflex issues).

Soups are good. I try to mix comfort faves (Campbell's veggie beef) with healthier things that involve lentils, beans, chicken broth, etc. Gluten-free toaster waffles from the healthfood section of the freezer are good, because the rice flour makes them crispy and not doughy. Clif bars are definitely a must, especially if you like the limited flavors in which they make mini sizes (a full Clif bar is kind of a commitment). On the worst days, I still have some packets left over from when I did medically supervised liquid diet. Carnation Instant Breakfast or a meal replacement shake powder from GNC would do the same thing. I mix mine with coffee or blend it with ice cubes and orange soda (vanilla powder) or cream soda or root beer (choco powder).

Do try to drink water even if you can't eat. That vaguely spacy dehydration thing doesn't help manage existing stress.

Good luck, crickets. You'll make it through.
posted by catlet at 1:07 PM on January 26, 2009

About a year ago, I went through a short period of fairly intense emotional upheaval and wound up not eating anything for close to three days, and nothing but boiled eggs for about three days after that. It wasn't just that it was easy (no dishes to wash; only ingredients are water and an egg); I actually found the process of cooking and eating them to be quite relaxing. There's something very soothing about watching water boil, and then slowly peeling and eating the egg without utensils. It's comforting more in a clear-your-mind, zen way than a fuzzy-slippers-and-oatmeal way, but I found it very effective.
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:30 PM on January 26, 2009

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