Food is supposed to nourish the body, energize it, and keep it strong. Often, we even turn to food when we need comfort. But sometimes, eating can work against us. Instead of feeling refueled or even soothed after a meal, we feel... uncomfortable. Anxious. If this has happened to you, you're not alone. And there are tons of reasons for this kind of tension during and after eating, everything from an earlier run-in with an undercooked burger to some deeper feelings of discomfort around food. If you're not to sure why you feel this way, we're here to help.
Do specific foods cause anxiety?
You know how after you get food poisoning, you can't even look at the thing that make you sick again without feeling nauseated for, like, weeks? Yeah, that's real. And sometimes, that disgust can morph into anxiety.
"If someone experienced an episode of food poisoning due to a specific food, that person might become anxious after eating it again," Francesca Tilocca, LMSW at NYC Counseling who specializes in anxiety, depression, and stress says. You might even feel stressed about getting sick from any food.
A similar issue can crop up in people with food allergies. "The experience of the reaction is so traumatizing that an individual can become paralyzed and develop somatic symptoms of anxiety just by smelling that specific food again," Tilocca says.
If you had food poisoning or have an allergy, you probably already suspect that's why you're feeling unsettled around mealtime. If the anxiety hits you out of nowhere, the culprit may be more emotional, Tilocca says.
"In my practice, I have seen clients come in who have developed aversions to foods that they ate during the holidays because they're reminded of specific negative experiences that happened to them during this time of year," Tilocca says.
Meaning: If your partner happened to break up with you over dinner at an Italian restaurant, you might find it difficult to work your way through a plate of chicken parmesan until your negative feelings surrounding that incident go away. "Eating is such a sensory experience," she adds. "And when those memories are activated, we can be brought back to different periods in our life."
But sometimes the anxiety is purely physical. Sugar and caffeine are both well-known triggers for shakiness, heart palpitations, clammy hands, and a racing mind. Too much processed sugar can cause your blood glucose to spike and crash, which in turn makes you irritable. Caffeine, on the other hand, causes a jittery feeling that triggers your fight-or-flight response and can amplify stress.
What else causes anxiety after eating?
If you're feeling uncomfortable or sad after eating a bigger-than-usual or rich meal or anytime you eat in general, however, it may point to a deeper mental health and anxiety issue.
"Starting in childhood, we receive differing messages around food," Tilocca says. "Whether they’re positive — 'You have such a great appetite!' — or negative — 'You’ll eat me out of house and home!' — these messages will impact us into our adulthood." Plus, she adds, there are the societal pressures we face daily that can cloud the way we think about eating. "And it's those feelings of shame and guilt that become the foundation for anxiety around eating as an experience," Tilocca says.
One thing she says she sees a lot in her practice is a misunderstanding and second-guessing of the sensation of fullness. Many people think of fullness as a bad thing and ask themselves damaging questions like, 'If my stomach is full, is that too much?' or 'Should I have stopped eating before this happened?', Tilocca says.
"There is so much miscommunication around consumption and fullness that many of us have the belief that 'if you feel full, you’ve eaten too much,'" Tilocca says. That's not always true. Being stuffed isn't a bad thing — and if it consistently makes you feel panicked, Tilocca says to try to remember that feeling full is a natural response in the body. "But that doesn’t automatically mean you have 'overconsumed'," she says.
What treatments are there?
If the feelings of anxiety you're having after eating are affecting your quality of life, then it's definitely a good idea to seek some sort of therapy to combat this issue.
There are a number of types of treatment that can help, according to Tilocca. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for instance, focuses on the interplay between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
"This work is centered more in the present and is normally short-term with a focus on creating real changes in behavior," Tilocca says of CBT. "Talk-based therapy, on the other hand, might be more focused on the past, such as how the thoughts came to be in the first place or understanding how past experiences are affecting you in the present."
Eating food is — and should be — an enjoyable experience for all of us. If you're still feeling anxious after a meal, don't hesitate to reach out for help.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.