Loss, and the resulting condition of ‘grief’, is one of the most difficult things a human being endures. When you lose someone, it affects everything – your physical body, your emotions, your relationships, and every part of your life. For so many, it is a time of chaos and feeling out of control. A myriad of feelings arises as you are forced to face what lies ahead. It is at these stressful times that the relationship between food and grief can impact your health and introduce the possibility of disordered eating issues.
The grief response takes many forms. For some, losing a loved one can set a cascade of physiologic and emotional changes in motion. Stress hormone levels rise, causing anxiety, fear, and panic. You may also experience a flood of heavy emotions, such as sadness, despair, and depression. As a defense, your body may go into “survival mode” and begin taking protective measures. Blood is shunted to the extremities and away from the gut. Cortisol levels increase, suppressing hunger and appetite. Anxiety and panic can even surface as aversions to foods or textures. Some people in grief experience nausea and vomiting. This can make caring for the body’s nutritional needs very difficult.
As serotonin (the happy, calm chemical) levels fall, you may be drawn to sugars and carbs for a pick-me-up. You may try to use food to comfort the emotional pain associated with grief and loss. Sleep disruptions may develop, further draining your body of vital energy. A sleep-deprived, physically exhausted, and emotionally depleted body may look for extra food to nourish it even though what it desperately needs is rest, recovery, and healing. Bottom line, feeding oneself during the grief process may be fraught with complications.
You can cope with these complications by being armed with care-taking skills. Below are a few simple tips to attend to your health during a loss:
- Eat breakfast. One of the best things you can do for your body is to eat within the first hour after you wake. It doesn’t have to be a perfectly balanced meal. The something is better than nothing rule applies here! Keep some of your favorite foods on hand to encourage you. If eating is not possible, drink a glass of milk, juice, or smoothie to start your engine. It’s better than skipping breakfast altogether.
- Eat small to moderate balanced ‘packets’ of food throughout the day. Erratic eating perpetuates a disordered eating cycle. Eating metabolically helps sustain your blood sugar level, keeping both mood and energy on an even keel. Combine proteins with complex carbohydrates, vital fats, fruits, and vegetables. Snacking on nutrient-dense foods such as trail mix, yogurt, and hummus can keep the body nourished.
- Find movement that allows presence, not numbing. Exercise can be a necessary distraction after a loss. Excessive or obsessive exercise can numb painful emotions. Sometimes the grief process is so draining, moving from the couch to the refrigerator is enough of a task. For some, exercise may feel impossible. I ask my clients to find movement that feels authentic to their body and do it with intention. No matter how you choose to move, when you bring awareness and breath, you’re creating space for the healing process to unfold.
- Treat yourself. I would imagine the last thing on the ‘to-do’ list of someone who is grieving is getting a massage. However, a massage can be a good alternative to using food to soothe, comfort, and calm the hyper-vigilant body. Other alternatives might include a warm bath, listening to music, or reading a good book. Aromatherapy, such as scented candles or oils, is another way to engage the senses and create a gentle safe space for grief.
- Find mindful moments and compassionate connections. Compassion is the most important part of acceptance. I refer to it as the salt in the soup because compassion is a vital ingredient for the grief process. But how on earth do we foster compassion during the dark moments of loss? With mindfulness. When we gently lean into the now with courage, awareness, and acceptance, we foster profound presence. This type of being-with-ness allows grief to move toward healing. Staying connected to each moment with our breath and the entire body provides a strong foundation for the healing process.
When to seek help
For the bereaved, disruptions or changes in eating should be short-lived. For some, however, it can be fertile ground for continued disordered eating patterns and symptomatic eating disorders. Individuals may find comfort in symptoms as they temporarily provide a sense of control. Calories are easier to keep track of than bills, for instance. And fantasizing about a sundae is less painful than the excruciating longing for a loved one. Restrictive, compulsive, or binge eating may seem like a life preserver and can happen to people who never expected disordered eating to enter their lives. Seek help if you::
- Gain or lose a significant amount of weight.
- Feel out of control with food.
- Become rigid about meals, calories, and/or exercise.
- Become focused on weight, shape, or body image.
- Cannot regulate eating on an ongoing basis.
- Notice symptoms such as binging or purging.
For help, you can turn to individuals like myself who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. These include psychotherapists, nutritionists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors. You can find us on IAEDP (International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals). NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) is another great resource for information on eating disorders and grief.
A profound loss can naturally disrupt the rhythm of eating and we need to make space for this process. But proper nutrition is crucial while you grieve, so if you feel that eating has become unmanageable, don’t hesitate to ask for help. You are not alone.
For more with Maria, listen to her interview with Heather Stang, “Feeding Our Grief: Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating After Loss with Maria Mora, MS, RD, CEDRD, C-IAYT.