Grief + Eating: How to Stay on Track After a Death

Certified Grief Counselor

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Emotional eating is part of a natural response to grief. Whenever you've suffered a significant setback or experienced the death of a loved one, it's easy to turn to food or away from it as a coping mechanism to your loss. Recognizing and confronting emotional eating habits after a loss is crucial to gaining control over your grief-related eating habits.  

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In terms of the different types of grief that can affect someone who's suffering, grief eating is one way of coping with sorrow. A common side effect of grief and anxiety is emotional eating after suffering the death of a loved one or other significant loss in life. The loss of appetite or the overstimulation of hunger can both be byproducts of loss and bereavement.

Some people lose their appetite immediately after a loved one dies, while others can't help but overload on food that's neither filling nor nutritious due to emotional overeating.

How Can Grief Affect Eating or Your Appetite?

Grief-related stress can wreak havoc on your body and the way you eat. The stress associated with grief can have different effects on your eating habits, with two main ways that can change your food intake. Individuals who are grieving tend to either eat more than usual or see their appetites significantly diminish. A prolonged period of grieving may cause an individual's appetite to increase more than expected. By contrast, a person facing acute stress may see a decrease in appetite lasting for several days to a few weeks.

Experiencing acute stress shortly after a traumatic event is common, and may last for one month or less. Losing one's appetite during this time is a shared grief effect. Internal regulators work to shut down the digestive system and decrease appetite as a response to stress. Alternatively, prolonged stress creates a need to nourish your sorrow by the same internal regulators working to protect you from pain and suffering. 

Tips for Helping With Overeating After a Death

Comfort eating after the death of a loved one can turn into overeating that may lead to adverse side effects and health issues. When dealing with a difficult situation and emotions, the mind can trigger an impulse to overeat. Grief eating is a prevalent behavior associated with grieving because of the release of dopamine, or the "feel-good" chemical reaction that your brain uses to reward you every time you eat. This chemical reaction doesn't last long, and your mind starts craving more food to feel good again. 

Here are a few ways to help you break poor eating habits after suffering a death of a loved one or other stressful event. 

1. Learn your hunger cues

Knowing how to tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger will help you gain control of your emotional eating during grieving. Whenever you feel stressed because of grief, it can feel as though you'll never feel normal again. After suffering a profound loss, you may want to eat and sleep more than usual.

These small pleasures tend to be the only things that feel good at a time when everything else feels as if it's falling apart. Food tends to become a distraction during this time and can be a respite from your pain. The next time you reach for something to eat, ask yourself if it's because you're hungry or because you want to feel better for the moment.  

2. Get some movement in

Exercise has the effect of calming your fears and anxieties that may be leading to overeating as a way of coping with grief. You can get natural endorphins pumping through your system with as little as ten minutes of physical movement a few times a day.

Getting some movement in during the day also helps stave off depression and other grief-related responses. You don’t need to plan for or overthink your exercise. Sometimes doing so can seem overwhelming. Just remember to get outside a few minutes each day to breathe in the fresh air and go for a short walk around the block. 

3. Be kind to yourself

Whenever you’re dealing with grief and loss, it’s easy to fall into the trap of finding ways to blame yourself. You may be focused on all of the things you did or didn’t do to contribute to the loss. Instead of thinking these self-sabotaging thoughts, try to focus on being kinder and more forgiving to yourself. 

Chances are there wasn’t anything you could do to change the outcome. So instead of punishing yourself for an unavoidable tragedy, try seeing things from a different perspective of love and compassion for yourself and others. 

4. Know your triggers

As time goes by, you’ll learn to recognize the feelings and emotions, and other things that trigger your emotional eating.

Jot them down as they occur so that you can get a handle on them as they come up. When you learn what triggers your emotional eating, you’re better able to change your behaviors and look for other ways to cope with your pain and loss. 

5. Avoid highly processed foods

Ask a friend or loved one to help you rid your fridge and pantry of highly processed and unhealthy foods. The more access you have to healthy and nutritious foods, the easier it is for you to make better choices.

When you’re focused on coping with grief, it is not the time to be overly concerned about what and if you’re eating the right things. However, as the days turn into months, you’ll want to ensure that you feed yourself healthy and nutritious meals to help you get through your grief without any added food-related health issues.  

6. Ask for support

Thinking about, shopping for, and preparing good-for-you foods may not be at the top of your priorities when experiencing grief. Ask a trusted friend or family member to help you plan and shop for easy to make foods that you can reach for in a pinch.

Many people are happy to help out and may just be waiting for the cues on how they can step in to support you. It helps if you make a list of foods that you’re allergic to or that you can’t stand eating so that you can offer it to whoever will be doing the shopping and meal preparation. 

Tips for Helping With Under Eating After a Death

Short-term, acute grief-related stress can cause you to lose your appetite for several days to weeks. Remember, your body is shutting down and going into fight-or-flight mode. It is a natural reaction to stress. It's not unusual for you to not feel like eating for several days after suffering a loss.

Everyone's response to grief is different, and a loss of appetite doesn't happen to all. However, it is a common reaction that can eventually be detrimental to your overall health if left untreated for a long time. Here are a few ideas to get you through the first days.

7. Eat small portions

Getting enough to eat during the first few days after suffering a loss may seem impossible. You might not have an appetite, and the thought or smell of food might repulse you. During this initial stage of the grieving process, try and aim to consume many small portions of nutritious foods or snacks throughout the day. Ask those around you to make pre-made foods available to you that you can nibble on whenever your hunger makes itself known. 

8. Drink your nutrition

Sometimes, sitting down for a meal after experiencing grief and trauma is not something you’ll think about doing.

The shock that follows a death or other significant traumatic event may cause you to lose your appetite for several days. Consider drinking protein shakes or additional liquid nourishment to keep your strength up until your craving for solid food makes a comeback. 

9. Set a timer

Set your alarm to remind you of when it’s time to eat. You may want to place multiple timers throughout the day and force yourself to consume a minimum amount of calories to keep up your strength.

You may not feel like eating anything, but getting even a few mouthfuls of nutritious food in your stomach will help you as you try to cope with your grief. 

10. Shop strategically

As you begin to absorb the shock of your loss, your appetite will slowly start to make its way back. Stock up on healthy foods you can nibble on that are already prepared or easy to make.

Take into consideration the different tastes and textures of the foods you purchase to have a better chance of wanting to eat them. It’s not unusual to have a raw, metallic taste in your mouth when you’re grieving. Choose low-acidic foods that won’t trigger this sensation in your mouth. 

11. Seek professional help

When your grief and sorrow become more than you can handle on your own, consider getting outside help. There are many places you can get free grief counseling or psychotherapy. A trained professional can help you effectively understand and manage your grief-related fears and anxieties. 

When you're able to pinpoint your grief triggers, you're better able to transition through your grief. Grief therapy helps you identify your feelings, motivations, and emotions. A trained therapist will help you shift your perspective toward recovery and hope for the future. 

Emotional Eating After Loss

Everyone experiences a life transition after a significant loss, and each person will deal with loss differently. Grief and bereavement are natural responses to major changes taking place after a death, divorce, or loss of a job.

It is expected that you may want to cope with your loss through emotional eating or other harmful behavioral patterns. Although overindulging or restricting your food intake may be comforting, in time, you'll move through these negative coping mechanisms as your grief begins to subside. 

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