Busy woman at work drinking a coffee

Stress symptoms: why ‘forgetting to eat’ isn’t the throwaway remark you think it is

Posted by for Wellbeing

Always find yourself telling your work colleagues at 4pm that you’ve ‘forgotten to eat’? It might be a sign that you’re not physically present. The solution? Get up and get moving.

If there’s one thing that team Strong has in common, it’s that we’re preoccupied by food. Senior writer Chloe Gray and I discuss what we eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner in great detail. At the office, we always have snacks. That’s nothing unusual – most of the runners, CrossFitters and cyclists I know love their food. Why? Because we’re always hungry.

And it’s being in that community, which tends to focus on performance and enjoyment over aesthetics, that makes it more difficult to understand how other people eat to live, rather than live to eat.

“Oh, I forgot to eat” is such a common refrain that it barely registers when someone says it anymore. It could be 4pm and they’ve not eaten all day – with no apparent hunger pangs or energy dips.

“I can’t concentrate on anything else when I’m hungry. My energy is low, my stomach is growling and my mind is only thinking about where I’m going to go for lunch,” says Chloe. “The idea of skipping my meals for being too busy is a catch 22 – I won’t work properly, so I’ll end up busier. Yet come 4pm, when I’ve often eaten three meals and a snack, people around me have eaten… nothing.

“If I stop and think about it, it can feel weird that I – a very small person – have eaten hundreds and hundreds of calories more to apparently function at the same level as my friends and colleagues. Luckily, I know my metabolism, my energy requirements and my hormone cycle need that constant intake of energy, so I won’t feel ashamed about my snacking habit.”

Fasting versus forgetting to eat

But the more prevalent the whole forgetting-to-eat chat has become, the weirder it begins to seem. Is everyone really satiated all day without food? Think about it this way: if your mate told you that they had made the decision to do OMAD (one meal a day) and only ate some pasta after work, you’d probably raise the alarm. Sure, some people thrive on OMAD but for the vast majority, avoiding food for such long periods wouldn’t work. Like Chloe, they’d be tired, hungry, easily distracted. If susceptible, such extreme fasting might start to warp their eating habits more generally. And yet, we laugh it off when our colleagues tell us that they’ve not eaten all day when it’s almost time to log off and go home. 

Among the fitness community, there are certainly plenty of warped attitudes towards food and movement but most of us who exercise regularly would say that it’s impossible to ignore hunger and maintain a regular exercise regime.

Forgetting to eat may be a sign of depression or stress

According to Dr Harriet Holme, registered nutritionist and founder of Healthy Eating Dr, there are a number of possible reasons behind people claiming to forget to eat. If you’re super busy, then lunch may genuinely fall low on your priorities. But if you, your mate or a colleague is constantly claiming to forgo meals because they slip your mind, then it’s time to look a little deeper.

“It could be a sign of depression,” she tells Stylist. “Depressive symptoms are associated with under or overeating. Acute stress may also lead to appetite suppression with some people either not hearing or not tuning into hunger cues.”

Busyness can be an excuse for disordered eating

Skipping breakfast is one thing (time-restricted eating has been associated with health benefits including increased expression of antioxidant defences, increased DNA repair, reduced inflammation and improved glucose control in some people). But unstructured, unintentional fasting is something else. 

It can, of course, be a sign of disordered eating, with people choosing to believe that they’re too busy to eat rather than accept they have a problem with food. For colleagues who may have dealt with disordered eating, having to hear their peers talk about forgetting to eat can be triggering too. 

Paying attention to our physical needs

And, according to, Dr Holme: “In a 24/7 society, with huge pressure from deadlines, juggling and stress, it can be really difficult to fit in eating, especially healthy eating.” In other words, it can seem easier to simply leave lunch until after work if there’s nothing suitable and easily accessible to hand when you have loads on. 

Even so, that doesn’t seem to be an especially healthy way to go about nutrition. It all suggests that perhaps we’re not aware of our bodies and what our physical selves need during the day.

The key, if you are someone who often gets to 4pm before realising that you’re running on empty, may simply be to get up and move around. If you’ve been hard at work all day, the chances are that you’re so engrossed in your work that you’re no longer physically present. That may sound a bit woo-woo but think about it; when you’re really stuck into your work, you totally forget about your body. Your brain is in your spreadsheets, your eyes on the words you’re typing; your laptop is taking all attention away from a growling stomach or hunched shoulders. 

December is the perfect time to listen to your stomach

One thing we should all try during December is getting up and away from our desks more so that we can genuinely listen to what we need. Do we really need a fourth cup of coffee at 11am, or did we just need to stretch our legs and hydrate with some water? Do you have to work through your lunch break or could you afford to have a stroll around the block to help decide if you want a sandwich?

A lack of hunger is totally normal when we’re stressed but there’s no better time than the end of the year for getting our wellbeing ducks in a row. And a simple place to start is by prioritising our physical selves while at work. Nail that by the time the Christmas holidays start and you’re in a great position to kick 2022 off as well as you can be.

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity BEAT.

For more nutrition stories, healthy recipes and workout ideas, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.