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Grief Eating

  • Eating

Grief eating is a term used when people over-rely on food to cope with loss of a loved one, even a pet. Of course, some people lose their appetite when they’re upset or sad, but many others turn to food—mostly those with fats and carbohydrates—to deal with distressing feelings. As my colleague and friend Mary Anne Cohen, director of the New York Center for Eating Disorders, says: “Emotional eaters are prone to derail, detour, and divert difficult feelings through food. And grief is the most difficult of feelings.”

Grief is one of the most difficult feelings because of its permanence: What was will never be again. Grief can be due to the death of someone (or something) dear to you, losing a well-loved job or home, or leaving behind what you dearly loved. We grieve over lost youth and health, diminishing abilities, and irrevocable changes in our lives.

All overeating due to grieving is not pathological. When someone dies, friends often bring us foods we may not often eat, so we indulge. Or we find ourselves standing in front of the refrigerator looking for something, when that “thing” is a husband or child or parent whom we will never have in our lives again. 

How does turning to food appear to help us during grief? First, it brings us pleasure. Grief may make us feel bereft of all pleasure. When someone dies, we may feel they’ve taken all of our joy with them. Second, eating is a distraction when we don’t know what to do with ourselves. It gives us something to focus on when perhaps we’d spent much of our time, for example, taking care of a loved one. 

Third, as Cohen says, eating also steers us away from suffering. It’s not called stuffing down feelings for nothing. We literally push them away with every mouthful we take. This is especially true if we lack people to comfort us or, alternately, if we have people who would, but we don’t show them our sadness but pain and insist on suffering alone. 

Some wisdom a therapist friend sent me by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler that tells it like it is but also offers a way to make peace with grief:

"The reality is that you will grieve forever. 

You will not ‘get over' the loss of a loved one; 

you will learn to live with it. 

You will heal and you will rebuild yourself 

around the loss you have suffered. 

You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. 

Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”