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Grief and comfort eating

Man sitting on a sofa grief eating crisps and chocolate

There’s a German word, ‘kummerspeck’, which literally translated means grief bacon. It refers to the impulse to overeat when dealing with difficult emotions.

Sometimes called grief eating, comfort eating after the death of a loved one is very common. Grief eating is just one of the ways that your intense emotions can affect your behaviour after grief.

Why does grief lead to comfort eating?

The brain releases dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ chemical, when you eat. It does this to encourage you to keeping eating to survive. The brain also rewards you more heavily for eating high-fat or high-sugar foods, as in the past these rare feasts would help sustain you through tough winters or periods of famine.

Now, food is now plentiful for many people in the developed world. We don’t need to feast in order to avoid famine, but we still get that happy feeling after eating – and especially after eating food high in fat or sugar. Sometimes, people unconsciously seek out this feel-good effect, as a quick, temporary fix when they are feeling low.

“Emotional eaters are prone to derail, detour, and divert difficult feelings through food,” says Mary Anne Cohen, director of the New York Center for Eating Disorders. “And grief is the most difficult of feelings.

“After a deep loss, people often sleep, drink, eat, shop, lose themselves on the computer, or engage in any number of activities to dull the ache and fill up the empty space within.”

The death of a loved one can make you feel as though nothing will ever feel good again, so the small pleasure of eating your favourite food can be a welcome respite from the pain you are feeling. Apart from the boost of dopamine in your brain, the act of eating can also provide a distraction, temporarily lessening your pain.

The problem is, of course, that the dopamine high after eating doesn’t last for long and the impact of overeating can have long-term consequences.

The long-term effects of grief eating

Comfort eating obviously has some long-term side effects which you may be concerned about. These may include:

  • Unwanted weight gain and associated health risks
  • Feelings of guilt, shame or low self-esteem
  • Fatigue
  • Mood swings
  • Binge eating, eating large quantities rapidly and without hunger
  • Development of unhealthy eating patterns which may lead to eating disorders

Managing comfort eating

After the death of a loved one, it is understandable that you may be turning to food to cope with your pain. It is not a sign of having weak willpower or being undisciplined – your brain is simply trying to find a way to make you feel better.

While you may be concerned about your comfort eating developing into a harmful habit, it may not be ideal to start any extreme or restrictive diet while you are grieving. Remember to be kind to yourself. If you’re thinking of embarking on a diet, or simply want advice on healthy eating, talking to your GP is a good first step.

One of the main ways to combat comfort eating is to be more conscious of when and why it happens. The following tips are based on NHS guidance and may help you understand your eating patterns:

Be aware of your emotional triggers

Emotional eating is usually brought on by what is known as a trigger. This may be a specific event, thought or feeling that causes you distress, compelling you to seek comfort in food.

Your grief is likely a huge factor in what triggers your comfort eating, but there may also be more specific things, such as stress around managing the estate, worry for the future, arguments with family members or painful memories. Simply knowing when you might be triggered to comfort eat can help you mentally and emotionally prepare.

Learn the difference between physical and emotional hunger

Although both sensations compel you to eat, physical hunger can be felt in your stomach and will come on gradually. In contrast, emotional hunger often appears suddenly, without any sensation or ‘pangs’ in your stomach, and you will often be craving a very specific food (often those high in fat or sugar).

One technique to tell the difference is to ask yourself the question: “Am I really hungry or do I just want to change how I feel?”

Find professional help

Coping with grief is never easy and sometimes it is better to admit you need help than try to face it alone. A qualified counsellor or therapist will be able to help you work through your feelings in a constructive, safe way.

A counsellor may talk to you about a whole range of issues, not just your eating patterns. In time, therapy may help you cope with grief in a healthy way, as well as manage your comfort eating.

Read more about coping with grief, or contact a bereavement support organisation for expert help and advice. You can also get in touch with Beat, a charity dedicated to helping people coping with eating disorders, overeating and issues with food and weight.

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