Turning Down the Nachos (aka Managing Grief and Comfort Eating)

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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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.

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14 Comments on "Turning Down the Nachos (aka Managing Grief and Comfort Eating)"

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  1. Christie  September 16, 2021 at 4:08 am Reply

    My grandma passed 2 days ago and I felt really sad because I kept postponing my visits… I cried for a day and then I just started craving sweets (candy, cakes) and drinks (non-alcoholic)… ( I generally like sweets but this has been bothering me because I feel like I’m over doing it.. I tear up anytime I think of her and I just drink and which makes me forget for a while and I just get back to it when I remember and go on social media to watch funny vids… my mum will be most affected by this because they were really close and on the day she died my mum missed her phone calls from my aunt who lives with my grandma… I don’t think she’s eating… and I’m terrible at consoling… I’m struggling with my thoughts too… this year has been messy

  2. Mims  March 30, 2020 at 9:51 pm Reply

    I haven’t stopped eating since I lost everything: My relationship, my home, my friends, my identity, my health. Every day I tell myself I’ll stop, but I just realized it will be a year soon. I used to be fit, athletic, vivacious, meticulous with my appearance. But now I forgot to take a shower, and I got fat. The good and bad is that my grief propelled me to move 2000 miles away so no one knows what I used to be like. The bad part is I don’t know anyone so I literally stay home crying and eating with no one to turn to.
    I’ve tried to contact old acquaintances but they assume I’m still that happy, upbeat person and I can’t confide in anyone.
    I was going to start getting back on track today, Monday, but I’ve had the flu for 10 days and decided to stay in bed eating another day. Plus it’s so cold and dreary out, and I’m used to a tropical climate.
    I have lived 2000 miles from “home” for nearly a year- though this is my home now- and I know had I been in my right mind, so to speak, I never would have moved here. I was so stunned and hurt so deeply, I basically ran away to escape the pain. Surprise, I brought the pain with me, only now it’s worse because I want to go home and I can’t. This is home now- a cold, dreary, isolated, uncomfortable house far away from everyone, and the people here are closed. I used to be in a beautiful, clean beach city with sunshine and gregatious people.
    So I eat.

  3. debbie kaufman  July 12, 2019 at 6:18 pm Reply

    My husband died 2 months ago after a 17 month fight with multiple myeloma. I’ve gained 10 pounds and can’t stop eating. Some people tell me I look better, but it is unhealthy eating. I talk, I walk, I keep busy, but every moment of downtime at home is a reason to graze. Lettuce, cookies, carrots, cheese, white bread products…etc. I’m glad I’m cheap and never buy food when I’m out.

  4. Ivy Baker  February 8, 2018 at 12:42 am Reply

    My grandmother isn’t doing too well at the moment and I am sure that my mother won’t handle her passes well. She is a grief eater so it is good to know that she should learn about doing other things to handle her grief.

  5. Ivy Baker  February 8, 2018 at 12:42 am Reply

    My grandmother isn’t doing too well at the moment and I am sure that my mother won’t handle her passes well. She is a grief eater so it is good to know that she should learn about doing other things to handle her grief.

  6. Mariella  February 5, 2018 at 10:28 am Reply

    Thank you for this helpful post. I appreciate this effective and cost-free counseling. Needed you today…

  7. Mariella  February 5, 2018 at 10:28 am Reply

    Thank you for this helpful post. I appreciate this effective and cost-free counseling. Needed you today…

  8. Erom  May 29, 2016 at 5:32 am Reply

    Thank you so much for this blog haven’t weighed myself but I’m sure I’ve gained 30 comfort eating since my husband was diagnosed with cancer some years ago and died not long ago, I’ve gone up a size after being slender all my life for the first time I have to go on a diet, its sobering to see my face look so full my arms are loose and my belly sticks out… maybe I’m paranoid I could easily see myself getting really big if I don’t get a handle on it now I wear size 14-16 dresses and large coats when I was small medium all my life my belly sticks out I look middle age all of a sudden with the weight gain. I have my month of June with food journaling, portion control , eating in and facing some of the fears I’ve masked with comfort eating.

    I don’t share much of this with my friends, of course, they notice I’ve gained some weight and they compliment me on my styling. When I get stressed or fearful I eat or drink what I want, lots take out from popular restaurants, lot of very tasty take out, thinking, he wouldn’t want me to suffer and wouldn’t mind me treating myself, is my rational but now is the time for a change.

    I eat out to socialize then bars to socialize, being a widow is lonely. I’ve made some good business contacts but enough is enough. I don’t keep sweets in the house but do take out and eating out and picking up snacks. These habits took several years to develop and the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

  9. Owl  May 29, 2016 at 4:59 am Reply

    I don’t purchase sweets but the alcoholic I live with does, he keeps the pantry stocked with candy, cookies. I’ve told him I am addicted to it and to please not store it in the kitchen. I’ve thrown it away. But he won’t listen to me and he keeps buying it. My love of my life left me 7 years ago and I felt isolated and lonely and gained a lot of weight but I never linked the 2 together until today.

  10. Helen Zz  October 17, 2015 at 6:28 pm Reply

    I overeat for comfort. I think I know why – as well as all the reasons you write about chemicals – I associate lack of food with those days when my dad was in hospital and we were all so stressed we hardly ate or slept. After his death, beginning to eat more again was a sign of getting back to routine. I would like to be healthy though.

  11. Grieving and gaining  February 27, 2014 at 6:50 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. It completely resonated. I lost my father 2 months ago and have been numb/going through the motions and have gained close to 15 lbs. I can’t stop the binge eating and I know I need to stop before it spirals out of control. This article really helped me understand that I am avoiding my feelings and trying to distract myself w/ food.

  12. cookiemonster  January 30, 2014 at 4:25 pm Reply

    ohhhhh 🙂 thank you so much for your lovely reply, I feel really touched there are loads of things for me to learn about. You are right about grief and society, it’s so much easier talking to this webpage than close friends or family. I love photography especially taking pictures along the coast and have a camera I don’t use often enough. Writing on here has started me off and realise it’s easier to do that I thought and helps me see things from a distance a bit better. You’re the third recent suggestion of a councillor, so I think it’s a sign and I will try it as I’m quite stuck where I am. Thank you so much, and carry on the wonderful work. xx

  13. cookiemonster  January 29, 2014 at 4:40 pm Reply

    I’m so glad I happened upon this article as it hit the nail on the head. I didn’t intend for the comment to be so long but here goes. I’ve gone from not being able to eat as my stomach was in knots to being totally addicted to carbs, mainly biscuits, cakes and chocolate. I can feel them affecting my mood within moments of eating them and recently it has been getting out of control, so rather than a treat, it’s in my mouth gone and I’m starting on the next biscuit and can’t stop the impulse as it’s happened so quickly. The lack of control over this is causing me lots of anxiety and an expanding waistline which I know in the scheme of thing isn’t that important but I feel really awful when I’m gaining weight as it affects the way I feel about myself. It’s only this morning that I confronted myself about why this was happening as I was eating biscuits after breakfast and after lunch and at work so that I was so full I felt sick and lethargic. Christmas is always difficult and there are still painful and stressful things to sort out with the will which really is so not worth worrying about, I just want it over with as it’s been dragging on for over 2 years as the emotions that go with it are much worse that the process and I know that a few legal meetings have tipped the balance and plummeted me into a depression where I feel sad and numb and just want to hide under the duvet and watch daytime TV but and eat and I feel if I give in to these I won’t come out again. I’m dragged out by my work commitments so trying to cope and outwardly pretending to be happy. As I live alone I have no one to share my feelings with and when I’m with my friends I don’t want to talk about the bad things I want to switch off and have time out. I’m also tired of being single( had a bad break up 5 years ago and can’t seen to meet anyone) A couple weeks ago I had a few too many drinks (something else that has spiralled out of control) and one of my friends managed to help me talk about my grief which was scary. I woke up after going to bed in the middle of the night with no one around having a panic attack. Writing this and thinking today has made me realise that I am burying my bad feelings and running away from them, I don’t want to see a counsellor as I feel my grief is so personal and close I don’t wan to share it with anyone and felt ‘exposed’ as I had shared my feelings with my friends while drunk and it was not a nice experience I felt like I’d shown and shared things I didn’t want to relive again. I’m sorry for rambling on. The comment I wanted to ask was, I’m struggling a bit with comforting things that aren’t food or wine. Currently, I find walking, talking to friends, bath, TV, help but wish I had a creative outlet, listening to music helps as does writing when I feel a bit stronger. But, when I feel at my worst I want to withdraw from everyone and it’s then that food and drink come into their own and then why I struggle with substitutes. Any more practical suggestions would be really helpful as it may be so obvious to an outside but I can’t see the wood for the trees or the big picture from the biscuits!

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