Photo by Gabriel Gurrola on Unsplash
There’s a German word – kummerspeck – which literally translates to ‘grief bacon’. It refers to the desire to overeat and weight gain, in response to emotions we can find it hard to cope with, during the grieving process.
People respond to grief in different ways and while some lose their appetite after the death of a loved one, others reach for fatty or sugary foods to help them cope with the overwhelming emotions of grief.
Why does kummerspeck happen after a bereavement?
When you eat, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine, which produces a feel-good effect. This reaction encourages people 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, the feel-good chemical reaction functioned as a survival instinct, as it encouraged people to eat plenty of high energy food when it was available, to sustain them through tough winters or times when food might be scarce.
However, if you live in the relative luxury of the developed world,the chances that you need to feast on fatty food just to survive are pretty slim. But you still look for that happy chemical ‘feel-good’ effect after eating. That means you may unconsciously turn to food for a “quick fix” when you’re feeling low.
Grief and overeating
“Emotional eaters are prone to derail, detour, and divert difficult feelings through food,” explains 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.”
In the spectrum of life events, a bereavement is one of the most difficult experiences many people can go through. Your brain is trying to find ways to make you feel better and the temporary dopamine high of eating comforting food can provide a welcome quick fix, even for just a few brief moments. The physical act of eating can also provide a welcome, if short-lived, distraction from upsetting thoughts.
In this respect, it’s perfectly understandable why you might be reaching for snacks or eating more than usual if you’ve recently lost a loved one. It’s not because you’re lacking in will power – your brain just wants you to feel better.
However, as you probably know, the short-term relief of digging into your favorite meal can lead to longer-term effects.
The long-term effects of grief and overeating
Emotional overeating during a bereavement may have some longer-term side effects.These may include any or all of the following:
Unwanted weight gain and associated risks to health
Feelings of shame, guilt or low self-esteem
Binge eating; eating large quantities of food rapidly, even without hunger
Development of unhealthy eating patterns which may lead to eating disorders
Many of these effects, such as fatigue and low self-esteem, can lead to further comfort eating as you search for that ‘feel-good’ high. If this pattern takes hold, it’s easy for emotional eating to become a vicious cycle.
“Chronic eating disorders can be related to unresolved frozen grief,” adds Mary Anne Cohen.
“Grief – frozen by the numbing of overeating – can be held in the body for years.”
Managing grief and overeating
Emotional overeating 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 your eating triggers are, or they might be more subtle and harder to identify.
Your grief is likely to be a big factor in what your triggers are, but there could also be other factors causing you to overeat. You might be experiencing stress around managing your loved one’s estate, feeling anxious about your future, or simply having trouble dealing with painful memories coming to the surface.
If you’re concerned that grief is causing you to overeat, identifying and understanding your emotional triggers can be an important first step in managing your overeating habits. This can help you anticipate when a trigger might occur, allowing you to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally.
Learn to tell the difference between physical and emotional hunger
Although both sensations compel you to eat, physical hunger and emotional hunger are actually quite different from each other. Learning to tell the difference will help you understand why you are feeling the urge to eat.
Physical hunger is felt in your stomach and will tend to come on gradually. By contrast, emotional hunger often appears suddenly, without any feeling of ‘hunger ‘pangs’ in your stomach. You may often be craving a very specific food – usually one that’s high in fat or sugar.
One way to tell if your grief is causing your ‘hunger’ 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 before they fix themselves a snack.
Support with emotional overeating
Coping with grief is never easy and it’s usually better to admit you need help than try to face it alone. If you have concerns about overeating, talking to your doctor is an important first step. They will be able to refer you to specialist counselors or organizations.
A qualified counselor or therapist will be able to help you work through your feelings in a constructive, safe way. They may potentially 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.