How grief can lead to emotional eating

Posted: 14/03/2018

Grief can affect us in different ways. Some people become reclusive and hide away from the outside world, others try and find a means of escaping from their emotional pain. This may include drinking more than usual, smoking or turning to drugs. Whilst others may turn to eating more food than usual as a coping mechanism. But why do some people turn to food after a bereavement? Here at Perfect Funeral Plans we take a look at how grief can lead to emotional eating.

Why do some people overeat when grieving?

As previously mentioned some may turn to grief eating as a coping mechanism, a way of dealing with the intense emotions one can feel when someone closed to us has passed away. For certain people, it is a very natural impulse to turn to food to deal with difficult emotions, such as anxiety or stress, in much the same way that others are inclined to lose their appetite during a particularly stressful period of their lives. Stress and depression can trigger different reactions in people.

There is a scientific reason that explains why some people turn to comfort eating. Subconsciously people are looking for a dopamine hit to try and alleviate their feelings of pain and sadness. Dopamine is released in the brain and is commonly known as being a ‘feel-good chemical. High-fat or high-sugar food can trigger this dopamine release, and stress or anxiety is known for releasing hormones (cortisol) that can encourage people towards overeating.

These two factors end up reinforcing each other, as once high fat and sugar-filled foods have been eating they create a feedback loop. These foods temporarily inhibit the areas of the brain that produce anxiety and stress-related emotions, making people believe that they are helping to counteract the stress and pain they may be feeling in their life. As a result, this can cause cravings for these types of foods in the future.

If food can seemingly help with painful emotions, it comes as no surprise why the bereaved can be inclined to indulge in their favourite food. After all, making one’s favourite dish can act as a kind of respite from the death of a loved one. In addition, the acts of both cooking food and eating it can also be a form of distraction, which is something the grieving can find healing.

However, at the same time, this comfort eating can induce feelings of guilt and shame due to overeating, which only increases their long-term stress. The high one gets from eating as a result of dopamine is only ever short term. In short, emotional eating can seem like a stress reliever but it is more often than not only temporary, and can, in fact, increase long-term stress, especially if you end up putting on an unhealthy amount of weight.

What are the long-term effects of emotional eating?

As we have spoken about, the pleasure gained from comfort eating is only ever temporary. Unfortunately, continual emotional eating over a long period of time can have some very unwanted side effects. These typically include any of the following:

  • Frequent mood swings induced by feeling frustrated at not being able to control the desire to comfort eat
  • Emotional eating is known to trigger binge eating, eating a vast amount of food in quick succession despite not being hungry
  • Health problems as a result of increased weight gain, such as heart problems or diabetes as a result of consuming a lot of high-sugar food
  • Feelings of guilt, shame or low self-esteem
  • Feeling sleepy and fatigued throughout the day
  • The development of eating disorders due to unhealthy eating patterns as a result of emotional eating

How to manage emotional eating?

One of the most important first steps you should take when it comes to tackling your emotional eating is to cut yourself a little slack. It is entirely understandable that you have turned to food in order to cope with the traumatic event of the death of a loved one. Beating yourself up over it won’t help your recovery, in fact, it could very well end up making it worse, becoming a vicious cycle. Remember how vital it is that you are kind to yourself.

When it comes to emotional eating you should try to remember that it isn’t to do with a lack of willpower or not having self-control. It is simply to do with your brain trying to find a way to cope with the pain of bereavement.

With this in mind, it is recommended that you do not turn to extremely restrictive diets as a means of coping with emotional eating, especially whilst you are still going through the grieving process, as it could lead to unhealthier eating habits in the future. The best thing you can do if you are considering cutting down on your emotional eating is to seek guidance from your GP to talk things through and give you the right information.

Here are some other tips on how you can manage emotional eating, based on information provided by the NHS

  • Try to take note of your emotional triggers and what makes you comfort eat by writing a food diary over the course of a week. This can help to provide clarity as to why you are turning to food
  • You should also try to remember the differences between emotional and physical hunger as the two are very different. Taking note of this can help to reduce the patterns of emotional eating

Find professional help

If you are struggling to find a way of coping with emotional eating, you don’t have to deal with it alone. A qualified therapist can help you work through your feelings safely and provide expert help and guidance to ensure that you make a recovery.

The eating disorder charity and advice service, Beat, can also help you with issues to do with emotional eating. It is a charity that dedicated to helping people coping with eating disorders, overeating and issues with food and weight.