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How your diet can impact the way you cope with grief

When we lose someone we love, it has a profound impact on our lives. We experience intense feelings of shock, pain, and sadness — or we can feel numb as our minds attempt to process what has happened. Grief can also impact our lifestyle and physical wellbeing. It’s very common for our diet to change during a period of bereavement. The impact of loss and grief is different for everyone and a change in diet is perfectly normal, but sometimes our eating habits can get into unhealthy cycles and make us feel worse. 

The impact of loss and grief on diet

Grief and eating are closely connected. Some people may lose their appetite and start to eat less. Others are more likely to comfort eat, consuming more than they normally would. These responses are perfectly natural. However, it can start to feel like you aren’t in control and your eating habits are negatively affecting your physical and mental health. 

Below, we explore the relationship between grief and eating. We look at reasons why your eating habits may have altered and ways you could change them should you wish to.

Experiencing a loss of appetite when grieving

If you’ve recently lost someone, you might find yourself eating less than usual. Losing weight while grieving is also very common. There are several reasons why this can happen:

Food doesn’t appeal to you

Studies have shown that grief can cause you to lose your appetite. You might find that you have no desire to eat and it becomes a chore.

You’re finding less joy in things

When you’re grieving, you might find that you lose interest in activities that you previously enjoyed. This can include food. It might not bring you the same joy that it used to, or it might remind you of the person you’ve lost.

You lack the motivation to eat or cook

When you’re experiencing grief, you often feel physically and emotionally exhausted. It can be very difficult to motivate yourself to do even the simplest of tasks. Planning a meal, buying ingredients, and cooking — or even ordering a takeout — can feel like too much.

You forget to eat

When you’re suffering from emotional distress it’s harder to focus. Your mind’s likely to be distracted by your grief and you might forget to eat altogether. This is especially true if you’re the one making funeral arrangements and sorting out your loved one’s affairs. You may have so many things to think about that eating slips your mind.

How to deal with loss of appetite

It’s very common to lose your appetite and eat less when you’re grieving, but it can make you feel much worse. During a difficult time, it’s important to look after yourself, however hard it might feel. Food gives us energy and helps our brains function properly. Going for long periods without eating, or not eating enough, can have a negative impact on our mental health. Here are some tips for dealing with loss of appetite when you’re grieving:

  • Set reminders to eat: If you’re finding that you’re forgetting to eat, try setting daily reminders on your phone to help you remember to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • Create a daily routine: Creating a routine where you eat at set times of the day means you won’t have to think and plan your mealtimes, which takes mental energy that you may not have. If you follow the routine and not your mood, you’ll get into a habit of eating on that schedule. 
  • Buy pre-prepared food: Make eating as easy as possible. This could mean buying pre-chopped vegetables, cooked meat, or even pre-prepared meals. When you’re grieving, you’re more likely to eat if you can stick something in the microwave rather than having to prepare a whole meal from scratch.
  • Buy snacks: If you’re really struggling with appetite and feel like you can’t manage full meals, try to have lots of snacks in the house. Eating something is better than eating nothing at all and sometimes a big meal can seem unappealing while a snack might not.
  • Ask for support: Times of crisis bring out the best in people and there’s bound to be someone who’s willing to help you out by making you some home-cooked meals. Batch-cooked meals like lasagna and chili are ideal because you can pop them in your fridge and freezer and stay stocked for a while.

Comfort eating to cope with grief

Some people turn to food for comfort when they’re grieving and end up eating more than they usually would. Again, struggling with grief and overeating is perfectly normal. If you’re someone who loves food and finds that it brings you joy, then it’s only natural that you might end up overeating and gaining weight while grieving. Here are some reasons why we comfort eat when we’re grieving:

Eating produces dopamine

Dopamine is one of the chemicals produced in the brain that makes us feel joy. The brain produces dopamine when we eat, so it’s scientifically proven to cheer us up. When you’re going through a difficult time after losing a loved one, food can temporarily ease your pain and make you feel better.

Fatty foods can ease sadness

Studies have shown that fatty foods can make you feel less sad. This might be why many of us end up comfort eating foods that are higher in fat — like pizza, chocolate, and ice cream — when we feel sad.

You associate food with comfort

If you’ve always turned to food for comfort, then you’ll associate eating with feeling soothed and comforted. It’s no surprise that during one of the most difficult times in your life — bereavement — you turn to food to make you feel better.

Food is easily accessible

If you’re recently bereaved, you’re likely to be spending a lot of time at home, where there’s a lot of food within reach. Friends and family may have made sure you’re well-stocked with food, which can lead to you eating more than usual.

You don’t feel like cooking

You might be eating more junk food and takeout because you lack the motivation to cook and eat healthily. When you’re feeling emotionally exhausted, it’s much easier to call your local pizza delivery place than to chop and cook fresh ingredients.

You feel like nothing matters anymore

In the pain and distress of grief, you might feel like there’s no point in following a healthy diet. You might think that you’re eating too much, but you don’t have the energy to do anything about it. 

How to deal with overeating

There’s nothing wrong with comfort eating — it’s a very normal part of the grieving process for many — but you might feel like your eating habits have started to impact negatively on your physical and mental health and want to do something about it. If that’s the case, here are some tips to help you curb overeating and choose healthy options:

  • Identify your triggers: Try to notice what situations trigger you to eat. Writing in a journal can help you do this and might be therapeutic in general. Once you know what your triggers are for eating, you can be aware and try to avoid them.
  • Find some alternative activities that you enjoy: If you’re eating to take your mind off things, try to find some other activities to keep you occupied. This might be social activities or self-care like taking a bath or going for a walk. Write a list of alternative activities you can pick from when you feel the urge to overeat.
  • Avoid eating while watching TV: When you’re watching TV you often don’t notice what you’re eating. Having a separate mealtime where you only focus on food means you can be intentional about what you’re eating. You could even try mindful eating techniques.
  • Process your emotions: You might be using food to try and distract yourself from feeling sad. However, you need to allow yourself to feel and process those emotions. When you’re feeling sad and have the urge to turn to food, try sitting with your feelings instead. Or if that’s too hard, try journaling or talking to a friend.
  • Be kind to yourself: Remember that this is a hard situation and you’re dealing with really difficult emotions. Many people struggle with grief and overeating, so don’t be hard on yourself. The way we speak to ourselves during times of grief can help or hinder the process. 

6 tips to help you eat healthy while grieving

While grief can impact our diet, food can impact our grief as well. Eating well keeps you healthy, which can help you feel more resilient during a difficult period. Below are some tips on how and what to eat to help you deal with grief:

1. Eat slow-release energy foods

Eating foods that release energy slowly helps to keep your blood sugar levels steady. This is beneficial because low blood sugar can cause you to feel more tired, down, and irritable. Pasta, rice, oats, bread, and cereals are all slow-release foods, so try and include these in your diet. 

2. Stay hydrated

Try to drink 6-8 glasses of fluid a day to help you feel more alert and clear-headed. Any kind of soft drink will keep you hydrated, so choose drinks that you enjoy. However, try to avoid consuming excessive amounts of sugar and caffeine by drinking too much soda, fruit juice, or coffee.

3. Look after your gut

Your gut can reflect how you’re feeling. If you’re stressed or anxious, this can cause digestion and stomach problems. Take care of your gut by eating plenty of fiber such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and probiotics.

4. Eat healthy fats

Fatty acids like omega 3 and omega 6 are great for keeping your brain healthy. Healthy fats like this are found in oily fish, nuts, dairy, eggs, poultry, avocados, and olive and sunflower oils. Trans and hydrogenated fats, on the other hand, have a negative effect on our mental and physical health.

5. Get plenty of protein

The amino acids that protein-rich foods contain are important for brain function. Protein also helps us to feel fuller for longer. There’s a lot of protein in meat and fish, as well as in legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds.

6. Watch your caffeine and alcohol intake

Consuming too much alcohol or caffeine could make you feel worse. Caffeine is a stimulant, and once the initial energy burst has worn off, it can make you feel anxious and disrupt your sleep. Similarly, the aftermath of drinking can cause us to feel particularly low and anxious. 

Dealing with the impact of loss and grief

If you’re really struggling with your diet while grieving, a professional may be able to help you. Your doctor or a charitable organization can point you in the direction of services that can help you. You may also benefit from grief counseling or therapy, to help you deal with the grief that’s underpinning your eating issues. 

There are many ways that you may feel, express, and process your grief, and everyone’s journey will be different. Your diet is just one way that grief might impact you. If you’re currently struggling with bereavement, learn how to deal with grief in a healthy way.

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