Lesley Postle, editor of this website, explains how bereavement can cause weight gain and what you can do about it.
Many people complain of weight gain after a bereavement which also makes them feel unhappy with themselves. It is a common problem when you are grieving but if you understand why and how it is happening, you will be able to do things which will help.
Comfort eating is common when we we are unhappy in life and grief is one of the most challenging things that we ever have to face. It causes a lot of stress on our bodies and that affects our appetites as well as many other things like sleep.
At first, when we are in the initial shock and acute stress of grief we might not feel like eating at all and we certainly won't feel like cooking.
Later on, when the initial shock of our bereavement has passed, we may enter a longer period of chronic stress, as we slowly process our grief and work out who we are in this new strange post-loss life.
Chronic stress tends to increase the appetite but we still don't feel like cooking or looking after ourselves much, so, we get into the bad habit of surviving on snacks like chocolate or crisps. We might also try drinking a lot of coffee to try and get some energy. We are busy trying to get back to work or cope with family demands, but we're also really tired from all the stress, so exercise also goes by the wayside.
Unfortunately, all this just makes things worse.
The Sea-saw of Blood Sugar Highs and Lows
When we eat a sugary snack such as a chocolate bar, the sugar is absorbed into our blood stream very quickly, which gives us a surge of energy and releases insulin.
The insulin then acts to lower our blood sugar which makes you feel tired and sluggish again making you crave more sugar to get more energy. It becomes a vicious cycle as the more sugar you eat the more you crave it to try and get the energy your body needs to cope with the stress.
This becomes a seasaw of high and low blood sugar which can make you feel pretty dreadful and even more exhausted. If you want to read a good explanation of the science of all this, click here.
Some people cope with this for a while, but eventually our bodies can't cope with this sea saw effect and will start to become sick or even insulin resistant which leads eventually to Type 2 Diabetes.
The other thing that insulin does is convert the sugar in your blood stream to fat and stores it in your body! So the side effect of eating all this sugar is, of course, weight gain.
But don't worry, there are things you can do to make yourself feel a lot better and start to shift the weight.
When we are stressed we tend to hold our breaths without realising. This makes us even more stressed and we tighten all our muscles. This is what it feels like to be in the 'fight or flight' mode.
To relax and let go use a simple breathing exercise. Don't worry if it releases emotion with it and you end up having a good cry. That is really good for you.
Just sit somewhere quiet and listen to your breathing. Is it shallow and high in your chest. Try and relax and breathe deep into your belly.
Count three slow breaths in and three slow breaths out. Repeat for a few minutes or until you feel more relaxed.
Perhaps listen to some relaxing music at the same time.
Another way to relax is to do some gentle yoga or try a relaxing hypnosis download.
The trick is to try and eat well balanced meals that won't spike your blood sugar and lead to cravings. You need good sources of protein and good fats for energy.
Choose carbohydrates that break down slower in your body such as brown rice or pasta, and whole grain breads. If you are desperate for comfort food, try a bowl of porridge made from whole rolled oats or a bowl of high fibre pumpkin or vegetable soup. These foods will take longer for the body to absorb and so won't spike your blood sugar or cause low blood sugar crashes.
Eat regular meals if possible including some healthy proteins and fats:
Buy some healthy snacks to have in the fridge for when you don't have the energy to cook, such as:
Avoid caffeine and sugar in drinks such as coffee or coca cola and instead try some more relaxing drinks such as:
A diet like this will help you to stay more relaxed and calm and allow your blood sugar levels to remain more constant. This will mean that you have less cravings and are less likely to reach for the chocolate bars.
If you're having trouble controlling your eating habits, perhaps try one of these hypnosis downloads which can help with emotional eating and many other reasons for weight gain.
You won't feel much like exercising if your grief has hit you hard. It's hard to get motivated to get yourself up, out and moving.
Don't beat yourself up about it. Your body is already under a lot of stress, so the last thing it needs is to be doing tough workouts at the gym.
But try and do something gentle. A short walk out in the fresh air will help to lift your mood. Maybe meet a friend for a coffee and a walk around town.
Perhaps put on a favourite song and just dance for a few minutes. It can make all the difference. Exercise releases endorphins in your body which makes you feel better.
Maybe try a few gentle yoga stretches.
As you start to feel better you can gradually increase and add a bit more movement to your day.
Above all, though, it is important not to be hard on yourself. You have enough on your plate grieving your loved one and getting through all that, without punishing yourself for putting on weight.
Allow yourself a treat now and then, but be mindful of what you are putting in your body. Be careful that you are not just eating without realising. If you are unaware of what you are eating, or find yourself just sitting putting lots of food into your mouth when you're not really hungry, think about getting some help.
You might be using food to block out the feelings that you need to process in order to get through your grief and re-build your life.
Many people use food in the same way as others use alcohol or drugs to block out their feelings. If you think that might be you, think about getting some grief support or using an online counselor as we recommend below.
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