Grief and overeating

Woman grief eating junk food

The German word ‘kummerspeck’ literally translates to ‘grief bacon’. It refers to the desire to overeat in response to difficult emotions.

Emotional eating after the death of a loved one, sometimes called grief eating, is a very common side effect of bereavement. While some people lose their appetite after the death of a loved one, others reach for sugary and fatty foods to help them cope with the overwhelming negative emotions of grief. In fact, according to psychological studies, 83 per cent of Australians blame their weight issues on emotional overeating.

Why overeating happens after a bereavement

When you eat, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine, which makes you feel good. This reaction encourages humans to keep eating, in order to survive. The brain also releases more dopamine when you eat food that is high in fat or sugar.

In the past, having this chemical reaction was a survival instinct, as it encouraged people to eat plenty of high energy food when it was available, to sustain them through periods of famine or tough winters.

However, if you live in the developed world in relative luxury, you probably don’t need to feast on fatty food to survive. But you still get that happy chemical after eating. That means you may unconsciously turn to food for a quick ‘fix’ when you’re feeling low.

“Emotional eaters are prone to derail, detour, and divert difficult feelings through food,” says Mary Anne Cohen, director of the New York Center for Eating Disorders. “And grief is the most difficult of feelings.

“After a deep loss, people often sleep, drink, eat, shop, lose themselves on the computer, or engage in any number of activities to dull the ache and fill up the empty space within.”

Grief is one of the worst experiences you can go through. Your brain is desperately trying to find ways to make you feel better and the temporary dopamine high of eating food is quick fix for a few brief moments. The act of eating can also provide a welcome distraction from upsetting thoughts.

In this respect, it’s perfectly understanding why you might be reaching for snacks or eating more than usual if you’ve lost a loved one. It’s not because you’re weak-willed – your brain just wants you to feel better.

However, as you probably know, the short-term relief of digging into your favourite meal can lead to some serious long-term effects.

The long-term effects of overeating

Overeating and comfort eating has some long-term side effects which you may be concerned about. These may include:

  • Unwanted weight gain and associated health risks
  • Feelings of guilt, shame or low self-esteem
  • Fatigue
  • Mood swings
  • Binge eating, eating large quantities rapidly and without hunger
  • Development of unhealthy eating patterns which may lead to eating disorders

Many of these effects, such as tiredness and low self-esteem, can lead to further comfort eating. It’s easy for emotional eating to quickly become a vicious cycle.

Managing comfort eating through grief

Be kind to yourself

Modern diet culture has created the idea that if you overeat, you are undisciplined or lazy. But after the death of a loved one, it’s only natural that you’re trying to find comfort by any means necessary, even if it’s only temporary.

Try to be kind to yourself and recognise when you are engaging in negative self-talk – thoughts like “I shouldn’t have eaten that”, “I’m so fat” or “I’m disgusting”.

Of course, you don’t want to continue overeating, but beating yourself up or going on an extreme diet is likely to only lead to more binge eating.

Be aware of your emotional triggers

Emotional eating is usually brought on by what is known as a trigger. This could be an event, thought or feeling that causes you distress, leading to comfort eating. You might be very aware of what these triggers are, or they might be subtler.

Your grief is likely to be a big factor in what your triggers are, but there may also be more specific things causing you to overeat. This may be stress around managing your loved one’s estate, anxiety about the future, conflict with members of your family, or painful memories resurfacing.

Identifying and understanding your triggers can be an important step in managing your overeating habits. This will help you anticipate when a trigger might occur, allowing you to emotionally and mentally prepare.

Learn the difference between physical and emotional hunger

Although both sensations compel you to eat, physical hunger and emotional hunger are quite different from each other. Learning to tell the difference will help you understand why you are eating.

Physical hunger can be felt in your stomach and will come on gradually. In contrast, emotional hunger often appears suddenly, without any sensation or ‘pangs’ in your stomach, and you will often be craving a very specific food – usually one high in fat or sugar.

One technique to tell the difference is to ask yourself the question: “Am I really hungry or do I just want to change how I feel?” Some people even put a post-it note on their fridge with a question mark, to prompt them to ask themselves this question.

Find professional help

Coping with grief is never easy and sometimes it is better to admit you need help than try to face it alone. If you are worried about overeating, talking to your doctor is an important first step. They will be able to refer you to specialist counsellors or organisations.

A qualified counsellor or therapist will be able to help you work through your feelings in a constructive, safe way. They may talk to you about a whole range of issues, not just your eating patterns. In time, therapy may help you cope with grief in a healthy way, as well as manage your comfort eating.

The Butterfly Foundation helps people with eating disorders, including binge eating and disordered eating. You can talk to them online, by email or by telephone for expert advice.

Read more about coping with grief, or contact a bereavement support organisation for expert help and advice.

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