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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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How to overcome emotional eating after a loss

Loss and grief affect us in profound ways, and can lead to emotional eating. Whether you’ve lost a loved one, pet, job, friendship, or home, grief can affect your eating patterns, leading to disordered eating behaviors, like emotional eating, stress eating, and binge eating. However, everyone’s grief and how they handle it is unique. And this includes their relationship to food and eating. 

The good news is that emotional eating is a perfectly normal physiological response in times of distress. There’s a reason it’s called “comfort food,” and it’s not so easy to stop emotional eating. Your body is hardwired to survive. And eating is a survival mechanism. But there are many strategies for how to manage emotional eating after a loss. It starts with understanding what’s going on when you grieve, and how it affects your emotional and physical hunger. 

9
 minutes read
Last updated on 
July 12, 2023
Woman looking into the distance
In this article

Understanding how to process grief

Grief is a perfectly normal response to loss, and that loss isn’t limited to the death of a loved one. Losing your health, bodily autonomy, career, relationships, friendships, or financial stability can cause countless emotions associated with grief, like sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, numbness, and shock.1

While grieving, you may feel pressure to move through the stages of grief quickly–to “get over it and move on.” But grief isn’t linear. If it is a profound loss, and the love you have for what you lost doesn’t just go away. That love ebbs and flows and changes, and grows alongside you. It’s a very personal experience that can affect your mental, physical, emotional, and social health, and many aspects of your life, including your connection to food.

How to be gentle with yourself while grieving

You need to take care of yourself while experiencing grief, and be gentle with yourself, as hard as that may seem. That means honestly honoring how you’re feeling, not beating yourself up for doing things you perceive as “bad” for you, and treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion you would a grieving loved one. Your body, mind, and heart are likely experiencing some of the most intense emotions a human can experience, and being compassionate with yourself is a kindness, and an important part of healing from a loss. 

This may look like forgiving yourself if you resort to emotional eating or stress eating to cope with your distress and despair. Or being kind to yourself if the only thing you have the energy for is a frozen meal or pizza delivery. It’s normal for grief to cause a change in eating habits for a period of weeks or even months after you experience loss. It’s important not to pressure yourself to eat perfectly. Sometimes eating at all can be a challenge while experiencing grief, so whatever food you’re able to consume, is okay.

Moving through grief and complicated grief

People move through grief at different rates—some people may take just a few months, while others may take years to process their grief. Regardless of the time frame, in cases of uncomplicated grief, your symptoms will begin to subside a bit and you will be better able to accept the loss over time. This doesn’t mean that you will no longer feel sorrow or anguish related to your grief, but it means you are able to move forward in a healthy way.

Conversely, some people experience complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, in which they’re unable to move forward with their lives. Their painful feelings are so severe that they disrupt their ability to function day to day.

Individuals with complicated grief may experience:2
  • Intense emotional numbness
  • Loneliness
  • Meaninglessness
  • Difficulty resuming their daily life
  • Persistent disbelief surrounding the loss

In the case of complicated grief, people may find it difficult to overcome emotional eating and return to a normal, mindful eating pattern. It might be helpful to speak with a mental health therapist or a medical professional who is experienced in navigating complicated grief, so they may provide you with some assistance in your healing.

At Within, we have a team of care partners who understand grief, and trauma, and their deep connection to eating, so we may provide gentle guidance in our treatment for anyone who needs it. 


Call (866) 293-0041

How does grief affect our hunger cues and eating habits?

There is a strong connection between grief and eating patterns as well as grief and eating disorders.

Grief may cause you to consume more food
Grief may cause you to consume less food

Emotional eating is a common response to grief 

It’s important to keep in mind that emotional eating is a normal physiological response to grief, from eating a bowl of ice cream after a break-up to eating a go-to comfort meal with a friend after a hard day. And while some people find the occasional bout of emotional eating helpful, because it is, others may be unable to navigate this practice in a healthy way, without shame. This is partly because diet culture and healthism have consumed our society, and many people view emotional eating as socially unacceptable and a sign of weakness, failure, or moral shortcoming.

Those who experience profound guilt and shame after emotional eating may inadvertently get stuck in a vicious cycle of emotional eating, shame, and restriction to cope with the shame of emotional eating, followed by emotional eating again as a normal physiological response to restriction and also to cope with the shame. This cycle can be a risk factor for disordered eating behaviors or full-blown binge eating disorder.

Others may go in the opposite direction, choosing to restrict food as a means of feeling in control. They may create a rigid eating or exercise routine that gives them a false sense of control during a time in which they feel out of control due to their loss. This pattern could lead to a preoccupation with weight, food, and/or appearance, which can provide grieving individuals with a distraction from their suffering.

Beyond emotional eating and restricting, grief and bereavement can increase the risk of many gastrointestinal (GI) conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory conditions, autoimmunity, and allergies, as well as mental health complications, like depression and anxiety. These GI disorders and psychiatric conditions can negatively affect eating habits, especially if they aren’t addressed with professional care.3

Woman looking into the distance

How to overcome emotional eating after a significant loss

Many people turn to emotional eating during times of distress, depression, sadness, and grief, because it’s a normal bodily response to an increase in cortisol, which is a stress hormone, in the body. Emotional eating may look like consuming comfort foods like candy, ice cream, desserts, or salty snacks, and it’s not inherently abnormal or worrisome. However, long-lasting and severe emotional eating as a way to alleviate distress can become a pattern of behavior that increases your risk of developing an eating disorder like binge eating disorder.

Ways of finding self-compassion for your emotional eating and grief 

If you are in the initial stages of grief and have been struggling with emotional eating, there are several ways to monitor your mood and tune into your body, so you can learn to manage your eating habits. As you learn to do these things, they will help reduce guilt and shame surrounding eating and food and, in turn, result in restoring normal eating patterns. These strategies for overcoming emotional eating include:

  • Learning to tune into your body in times of distress and “sit with it”
  • Practicing self-compassion and self-kindness
  • Using gentle self-talk
  • Learning to tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger
  • Seeking out grief support groups
  • Attending therapy sessions or grief counseling
  • Establishing a routine
  • Using healthy coping skills that aren’t related to food (meditation, mindful breathing, distraction, seeking emotional support, etc.)
  • Keeping a journal in order to process your grief, emotions, and stressors
  • Practicing mindfulness and radical acceptance related to your loss
  • Create rituals to help you grieve, such as making a scrapbook or making a favorite meal
  • Reach out to friends and family members for support
  • Find creative ways to express your grief, such as writing, gardening, or making art

When to seek help for your eating habits

Many people may temporarily turn to emotional eating during bereavement but are able to return to their previous mindful eating patterns after a certain time period. However, this isn’t true for everyone. Some grieving individuals struggle to return to a healthy eating routine and may even progress to disordered eating or an eating disorder.

Signs that you may need to seek professional help for your eating include:
  • Engaging in binge-eating episodes
  • Experiencing intense shame related to eating patterns or emotional eating
  • Skipping meals or fasting
  • Using diet pills, laxatives, or diuretics
  • Engaging in purging behaviors, like compulsive exercise or self-induced vomiting
  • Obsessing over your weight, food, or appearance
  • Counting calories
  • Cutting out an entire food group
  • Regularly eating in private due to shame or guilt

If your eating patterns have become unmanageable, you may want to seek professional treatment. There are many levels of treatment and approaches, such as an inpatient, outpatient, or virtual eating disorder treatment program. The level and approach will depend on how severe eating disorder symptoms and medical complications are and how much they disrupt an individual’s life. For more guidance on what is right for you, schedule an assessment with your doctor or a mental health treatment provider.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Coping with grief. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  2. Prolonged grief disorder. (n.d.). Psychiatry.org. 
  3. Seiler, A., von Känel, R., & Slavich, G. M. (2020). The psychobiology of bereavement and health: A conceptual review from the perspective of social signal transduction theory of depression. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11.

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