Copious amounts of literature, both scientifically sound and otherwise, exist regarding the grieving process. I am certainly no expert, but as an RN and person who has walked the way of grief, I would like to offer this short explanation on the grief-food connection. Someting incredibly important to mention is this: grief is not limited to losing a loved one to death, as I did. Grief can occur for reasons as varied as each of us, including divorce, job loss, chronic illness, miscarriage or infertility, or even failure to reach a goal that you have set for yourself. These are all valid reasons to be in a season of grieving.
In times of acute stress, our bodies go into the fight or flight response. We can trace this back to the beginning of humanity, when our ancestors were at the mercy of nature. A bear or something equally awesome and terrifying was in your camp — what will you do? You either need to fight him off, or run from him. Many things need to happen in your body for this to work, so it releases adrenaline and cortisol. Those two hormones cause the shaky hands, dilated pupils, increased pulse, flushed face, and slowed digestion, among other symptoms. When our ancestors experienced this rush of powerful hormones, they actually fought or ran. The increased pulse provided the blood flow they needed in their extremities to sustain the fighting or running, and the digestion process (requiring its own blood flow) would just need to wait until they were safe. We still experience the same stress response, but we are unlikely to be facing any bears. Our stress comes from our relationships or our jobs or our finances. Not exactly good times to literally fight or run. But the loss of appetite remains. Our guts do not have the blood flow to digest food in acute stress, so we don’t eat.
If this stress continues, as in the case of grief, we get another series of issues. Cortisol helps your body keep a supply of sugar in your bloodstream, which is important if you’re actually running from a bear. But it’s really harmful if you are just going about your day-to-day (Type II Diabetes is no joke). It also increases your appetite in the long-term and causes you to deposit fat on your middle section. Abdominal fat is incredibly damaging to your internal organs, putting stress on nearly every body system.
Another compounding issue is decision fatigue. In the case of losing a loved one, we are forced to make dozens of choices almost immediately. What were their burial wishes? What kind of service would they have wanted? Who is going to take care of the kids while this is all sorted? It is exhausting after approximately 5 minutes. And the fight or flight response is in full swing, so we put eating off the agenda for a while. We are human, though, and eventually we must eat again. When that happens, we are often so tired of making decisions, that we will eat just about anything, no matter how it makes us feel physically. Because eating junk often makes us crave more of it, our intake increases, and so does our weight (especially around our middles).
Enter Whole 30
This weight gain is so common during times of grief, the Germans actually have a word for it: kummerspeck (literally translated “grief bacon”); however, I would like to offer you an alternative to this serving of grief bacon: The Whole 30. There is no reason a person must suffer physical health consequences while processing their grief.
The Whole 30 is simple. Focus on eating a good source of animal protein (beef, chicken, pork, etc), a good source of fat (coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, etc) and fill your plate with vegetables, throw in the occasional fruit. Avoid any additives, sugars, legumes, grains, alcohol, or dairy. Do not attempt to recreate junk food (no Whole 30 desserts!), and do not weigh or measure yourself. This last rule is incredibly important while you are grieving, as sometimes our weight can become a measurement of success or value. This is NOT true. Your weight measures your relationship to gravity — nothing else. These are your only rules for the Whole 30, but there are a few more recommendations to be aware of: Avoid snacking, avoid drinking your meals instead of chewing them (as in the case of a smoothie or paleo protein shake made with egg whites), and limit vegetable oils. That’s it. Simple.