Why you should eat more than chicken nuggets when grieving

If you know me at all, you know that I love food.

All of my go-to emojis are food. I spend lunch thinking about what I'll eat for dinner. And my ideal way to spend nights after work is cooking meatballs or trying a new restaurant. I haven't always had this relationship with food, and struggled with a severe eating disorder for many years. Today, I'm grateful for the fact that I can, will, and want to eat croissants for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (my worst nightmare in high school). But since my mom died, I've forced myself to stay hyper aware of those croissant cravings, not necessarily to quash them, but to understand why I am eating the way I am and what my body can gain from really paying attention to my gutz.

I recently met with a nutritionist and naturopath (#insurance), and both helped me identify some ties between mental health, physical health, and how our grief affects the way we eat. The time we spend grieving isn't the normal "damn I'm sad I lost that dozen eggs I dropped on the ground" sadness. It's prolonged and intense, and can throw everything out of whack. Which in turn means that it affects the fuel that we need to help our bodies survive. As my nutritionist noted, not only my mind, but also my body has been through straight up battle in the last year and a half.

Why it's important to eat more than chicken nuggets

They explained the link between a weakened immune system, the impact of cortisol and ACTH hormones, and the "bracing" that our bodies go through for prolonged periods after the loss of a loved one. When we're grieving, our bodies go into a state of heightened stress and tension. In response to loss (like the sudden loss of my mom) our bodies prepare themselves for f'ing war and produce high levels of these "bracing" hormones. This throws off the normal ebb and flow, or depletion and replenishment cycle, that our bodies are used to with these hormones. This can lead to imbalances, trouble sleeping, stress about being stressed, and in my case: french fries that make me feel like garbage. When your body is thrown out of whack like this, it means that our immune systems are run down and we need more or different kinds of fuel to get up and go every morning. 

Of course, there are many other reasons that our cravings and capabilities change when we're grieving. The two easiest things to bring a person who is crying all day are: something to fill the belly (comfort food) and numb the pain (booze). Eating the food that people have kindly brought you is easy, it's quick, and it means you can focus on something other than cooking for one (a huge issue for people who lose spouses and partners) or cooking at all. So bad habits are easy to fall into.

For other people, grief can also mean your entire routine is thrown off track. During the period we lost my mom, I was eating things on the run, between hospital visits, drinking every night, and picking up whatever was easiest from a drive through when planning the funeral or after everyone had left and it was just a few weeks of me and dad crying and watching Gilmore Girls. My routine was nonexistent and my health was going down the drain.

Once you've had the routine of waking up next to a loved one, or cooking with a loved one, or eating out with a loved one all taken from you, it can be hard to get back into the swing of all the other daily routines in your life. This could include early morning exercise, meal prepping, diets, and eating healthy; these things take energy, focus, and motivation, and considering you're going through one of the most impactful experiences life throws at us, sometimes that energy and inspiration to do good things for your body is spent just getting out of bed before 11am. 

Here are a few articles that discuss how all of this works, and more importantly, how to take care of your body and your diet when you're dealing with grief. And thankfully, according to my nutritionist, sometimes that means a croissant once in a while ::blessed::.

What to eat when grief is eating you
by Kristi Hugstad
Huffington Post

"When you’re grieving – particularly after the death of a loved one – you might experience decision fatigue. This happens in response to the number of decisions you’ve been forced to make over a very short period of time, deteriorating the quality of those decisions."

My Emotional Eating Habits
by Cece Olisa

"I believe that my emotions and my eating are intrinsically connected, and I've accepted that there will be times when I make poor choices based on how I'm feeling. I'm okay with that. I needed to eat enchiladas and In-N-Out Burger with my cousins in order to make it through a hard time. I'm not ashamed of admitting that. But, I don't need those indulgent foods to get through daily life. I don't need to succumb to every craving to be happy. So, I adjust and explore."

Eating and Grieving: How Bereavement Affects Nutrition
by Mary Ellen Wasielewski

"When your world has suffered a dramatic change, it’s hard to prioritize self-love and self-care—yet you can, and must."