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When we think about grief we often think of the tears, the anger, and the guilt. We talk about the strain it puts on our relationship with friends and family. We consider the existential crisis it can induce. But one thing that often doesn’t get discussed is that grief can bring on a whole new relationship with food. For some this means struggling to eat anything, with a stomach in knots from pain and anxiety. For others, grief and comfort eating become a constant reality. Food suddenly becomes a new best friend. It goes a little something like this: you are feeling sad and depressed and alone, your favorite nachos from that Mexican carry-out around the corner start calling your name and before you know it you’ve polished them off, along with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s . . . and a margarita. Or three.
Now, those of you who have spent any time around here can probably guess that we are the first to support some food-and-beverage-splurges now and again. Sometimes that bag of Old Bay Potato Chips is crucial for a proper day of sulking. But we also get that sometimes those splurges can turn into daily events when we’re grieving. Before you know it your pants don’t button, you’re eating a box of Girl Scout cookies a day, you feel like crap, and you see that it’s a vicious cycle but you still can’t seem to get it under control.
Why do we overeat when we’re grieving?
Good question! There are actually a number of reasons grief and comfort eating go hand-in-hand, which is probably why it is so common.
- It makes us feel good and makes us want to come back for more. Remember all that brain chemistry we talked about in our post about why we like drinking when we’re grieving? No? Well you can check that post out here. What is going on in our brains’ with food is pretty similar. Food, especially fatty or sugary foods, triggers the reward system in our brains. We start firing all those feel-good neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and our brain is telling us to just keep eating all that delicious, fattening, sugary food. Stupid brain. This is a great video to help you understand not only what is going on chemically when we eat these foods, but also how we can get hooked on them.
- Fatty foods make us less sad. Really. This sounds kind of crazy, but University of Leuven, in Belgium did research to back it up. They did a study where people were shown sad images and music while in an MRI scanner. One group had fats injected in their stomachs, and the other group was injected with saline as a placebo. They did not actually eat any foods, so the pleasure of flavor and food associations was removed. Researchers found those who had fat injected were 50% less saddened by the images and music. I know, crazy, right?!? Don’t believe me? You can check out the research here.
- We deserve it. As human beings we are professional rationalizers. We are really, really good at rationalizing our behaviors. When we have just gone through something devastating, when we are hurting and struggling, it becomes very easy for us to rationalize our eating by telling ourselves we’ve deserved it- through our suffering, we’ve somehow earned it. Don’t get me wrong, every now and then we probably do deserve it. The problem is when we start to deserve it every day.
- Nothing matters. When we lose someone life can start to feel meaningless in an instant. Suddenly nothing matters, so why not eat whatever we want? When we don’t care as much about our health or appearance and life feels empty, there is no reason not to grab that cupcake.
- It’s there. When someone dies the food often starts rolling in – more cookies, casseroles, and coffee cakes than can fit in the fridge. Not to mention gift cards to every carry-out place in town. This can be a great thing when no one wants to deal with cooking, but it can also get us off on a dangerous foot. When we are surrounded by food it can become our first grief-coping-tool, and needless to say it isn’t the healthiest coping tool! Once the pattern of overeating starts it can be hard to stop.
- We don’t feel like cooking. Grief makes it feel impossible to get off the couch some days, much less face making dinner. The result can be an endless stream of carry-out, eating out, and delivery. Portions are huge, the options are often less than healthy and, let’s be honest, one piece of pizza can quickly turn into four.
- Boredom. In addition to struggling with motivation to cook, we often struggle to get up and out of the house. All that extra time in the house can lead to mindless eating, just because the food is there.
- We associate food with comfort. From when we are very young food is used as a reward or to cheer us up. When we are grieving it is no surprise we often turn to our favorite “comfort” foods to ease our pain, or to reward ourselves for getting through the day.
As usual, I am sure some of you are screaming, “this is me! What do I do about it?!”
What to do if you are comfort eating your way through grief:
- Pay attention to your triggers. Paying attention can help you find patterns in your overeating. The easiest way to do this is to keep a food journal. For a few weeks document when you eat (time and date), what you eat, how hungry you were when you started eating (on a scale of 1-10), and how you were feeling when you started eating and when you finished. This can help you identify times, places, and emotions that may be triggering comfort eating.
- Consciously consider whether you are actually hungry. So much of our eating is from habit, comfort, and simply wanting to eat. Consider before eating anything how hungry you are. If you are scoring yourself low on the hunger scale, find an alternative to eating.
- Know your alternatives to eating. I know, trying to think of an eating alternative when all you really want is some wine with a yummy block of cheese and crackers seems impossible. But having a plan for when you want to eat but aren’t really hungry can help. Some options are:
- Make a cup of tea, then reassess if you really need to eat something.
- Do some deep breathing. If food is a reaction to a spike in stress or anxiety for you, sitting down and doing deep breathing for a minute is proven to lower cortisol levels and can help but a break between you and that food you might not really need.
- Learn to tolerate tough emotions. If you realize that emotions are triggering your eating, this is often a sign you are avoiding the emotion, trying to sooth with food. Rather than avoiding these emotions when they come up, take the time to experience them. Find ways to express the emotion through writing, photography, or another outlet that works for you. Learning to tolerate these feelings reduces the tendency to avoid emotions with food and helps us find alternate ways to cope.
- Fight boredom. Grief makes us reluctant to go out, which can lead to boredom eating in the house. If you find yourself tempted to eat to fill the time, take a walk, take a bath, read, journal, do yoga, or do something creative. This can be good for grief, and can help with putting the cookies down!
- Don’t eat when you’re watching TV. This is an old standard, and the reasons are pretty obvious. When we are watching TV we eat mindlessly and way beyond when our hunger stops. We know that a lifetime movie is sometimes a necessary self-care tool, just don’t bring snacks along. If you can’t imagine watching TV without a snack, try tea, veggies, fruit, low-fat popcorn, or another healthy option.
- Practice mindful eating. For me this is one of the best habits you can adopt. This is the simple practice of making sure you focus on, notice, and savor every bite of your food. Take the time to look at your food and smell it before you take a bite. When you put your food in your mouth, notice the flavors and textures. Chew each bite thoroughly and notice it as you swallow. Thoughtfully take your next bite, repeating this as you eat. Practicing this can help you assess whether you truly want to eat something, whether you are truly enjoying it, and to stop when you are satisfied. Many people realize they are satisfied with much less food then they would normally eat, and that some foods are not appealing when more attention is paid to the experience of eating them.
- Break the carry-out cycle. From grocery delivery to Let’s Dish, there are a lot of options to help when your motivation is dwindling, but you want to stop the cycle of eating out and making unhealthy choices. Check out our post on coping with cooking after a death for some tips.
- Find other pleasures. The sad reality is that when we are grieving, much of the joy is sucked from our lives. It is not uncommon for people grieving, or people suffering from depression, to identify food as one of the few pleasures they currently have. If this is the case, it is crucial to seek other pleasures and rewards that work for you to replace food.
- Splurge now and then. Life is short, and this is not about deprivation all the time. Getting emotional overeating under control means practicing the above most of the time, but allowing indulgences now and again. Just keep them in check. If you are fixating on a food, allow yourself to have a couple mindful bites, then walk away.
- Get help. Sometimes these tips just aren’t going to be enough. If you are still struggling with overeating, consider a counselor or group to further explore your grief and relationship with food.
Have tips that have helped with your grief eating? Leave a comment!! Subscribe to keep helpful grief posts coming right to your inbox.