Bereavement eating: does grief cause carb cravings?

by Carolyn Thomas  ♥  @HeartSisters

I’ve heard it said that some people experience a loss of appetite during stressful times like a death in the family.  These people are not my relatives. Indeed, in our Ukrainian family tradition, we eat when we’re happy, we eat when we’re upset, and we eat during all possible emotions in between.

Every family gathering surrounding my mother’s recent death was no exception.

For example, the delicious lunch following her funeral service was a true labour of love, prepared by the women of my mother’s church, just as the women of churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and neighbourhoods around the world have been doing for mourners since time began. 

In Ellen Kanner‘s beautiful Culinate essay called Brisket in Bereavement, she helps to explains why this is:

“In grief, your carefully constructed life crashes and falls away, leaving you exposed, raw, helpless as a newborn. The bits of you that ought to be open are obstructed. The pain of loss dulls your senses, creates a force field around your body, makes you impervious to the world around you and especially impervious to its pleasures. You shut down.

“Maybe that’s why, in the wake of death, feeding those who mourn is part of our human hard wiring. It’s not a matter of feeding hunger. It’s about tempting and coaxing and calling the grieving back into the world. To eat is to engage, to strengthen, to unwrap from that first layer of sorrow’s embrace and partake of the life force.”

But bereavement is no time for exotic recipes or kitchen challenges, Ellen reminds us. It is a time for the familiar, for the traditional, for what is easy to prepare and easy to digest.

For our family, that meant homemade perogies (varenyky) with fried onions and bacon, topped with mountains of sour cream. Yes, real sour cream, not that dreadful no-fat stuff I’ve been buying ever since I survived a heart attack (the kind my mother would have sneered at).

It also meant lots of wine and chocolate and my sister-in-law Donna’s slow-roasted pork ribs. Mom would have been so pleased to see her five children, 11 grandchildren and oh-so-many extended family members enjoying comfort food together. As we had acknowledged in her obituary:

“Somewhere in heaven today is the aroma of Mom’s famous homebaked Chelsea buns and an apple pie or two.”

For Ellen Kanner’s family, a death meant cooking a brisket. Her own mother cooked for bereaved family members, she explained, to fend off grief, to show Death who’s boss.” 

After I flew home to the West Coast following my mother’s funeral, feeling like I’d been hit by a very large bus, I experienced surprising and relentless carb cravings all week long. I wanted (needed) only hot cross buns, Island Farms coffee truffle ice cream, and buttery mashed potatoes. No carrots. No salad. No interest whatsoever in eating anything even remotely heart-healthy. As California dietician Evelyn Tribole explains in her book, Healthy Homestyle Cooking:

“You don’t want to kill for a piece of broccoli, but you’d kill for a piece of bread.”

Author and scientist Dr. Judith Wurtman would likely agree with Evelyn. She and her husband, MIT professor Dr. Richard J. Wurtman, have long researched carbohydrates and their link to mood and depression. She explains:

“Carb craving is part of daily life. It’s a real neurochemical phenomenon.

The Wurtmans published a landmark article about the link between carbs and depression in Scientific American back in January 1989. They were convinced that carbohydrate craving is related to decreases in the body’s feel-good hormone serotonin, decreases which are marked by a decline in mood and concentration.

Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago suggest that carb cravers with a depressed mood may be self-medicating. And eating carbohydrates seems to help carb cravers feel better within about 20 minutes, according to the Wurtmans’ research. When we eat carbs, they claim, our bodies create more serotonin. Reaching for carbs may be an unconscious attempt to lift a depressed mood.

While high carbohydrate meals raise serotonin, protein-rich meals tend to lower it. But all carbs are not created equal. The type of carbohydrate we crave seems to be based upon the food’s glycemic index, or how high it causes blood sugar levels to peak after consumption. The higher-glycemic index carbs (like sugar) are said to have a greater effect on serotonin than lower-glycemic index carbs (like porridge).

When coping with severe stress, a person needs increased energy to deal with the heavier demands placed on both the mind and body. Simple carbohydrates provide a fairly rapid source of fuel to the body by raising these blood sugar levels. And traumatic precipitating factors – like grief, divorce, family or health crises – can set off a cascade of carb cravings.

The problem with a simple carb overload, however, is that it can also set off a physiological chain reaction that wreaks havoc on the body. It also taxes the adrenals, suppresses the immune system for hours after intake, and generally leaves a person feeling sluggish and off-kilter. And then there’s the sugar crash…

But fear not, carbophobics. Bereavement eating like this is likely just a temporary craving misfire set off by the grief process; soon enough, I’m sure I’ll be back to tossing heart-smart salads and grilling salmon once again.

The yet-to-be published fifth edition of the medical text Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5) will reportedly for the first time ever officially include the perfectly normal depressive state of bereavement as a form of mental illness – and no doubt an “illness” that will demand the pharmaceutical assistance of anti-depressant drugs instead of a nice homemade brisket, mashed potatoes and gravy.   (See also: How The ‘Shrink’s Bible’ Can Make You Sick)

But as Dr. Marcelle Pick reminds us in her book Are You Tired & Wired?, bereaved people have very good reason to feel temporarily depressed and distressed about the loss of someone they care about.

Here are some common life events Dr. Pick lists that are likely to cause us to develop short-term symptoms of what’s known as normal situational depression – and not necessarily (despite what the Big Pharma-supported DSM-5 will try to convince your doctors) a psychiatric disorder:

  • death of a loved one
  • health crises
  • financial problems
  • divorce, break-up
  • losing a job, underemployment
  • moving
  • children leaving for college
  • even positive transitions laden with deep meaning, such as new jobs, weddings, births

Yes, we could reach for the pill bottle to help us cope with these events.

Or we could dig up one of our mother’s favourite recipes and whip up some nice comforting carbs instead.  I think for tonight, it might just be Mom’s rice pudding recipe, the one with hot maple syrup sauce . . .

© 2012 Carolyn Thomas

See also:

When Your Mother Dies

A Motherless Mother’s Day

Mindless Eating: 8 Reasons Women Eat When We’re Not Even Hungry

Why We Don’t Crave Broccoli

Stare Down That Plate of Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate-Covered Bacon – And Other Ways to Alter Your Brain Chemistry

10 Non-Drug Ways to Treat Depression in Heart Patients

How Our Girlfriends Can Help Us Get Through the Toughest Times

Is Everyday Stress Gnawing at Your Arteries? 

Live Long and Prosper – By Eating Responsibly

What Overweight Women May Have in Common with Drug Addicts


12 thoughts on “Bereavement eating: does grief cause carb cravings?

  1. When my son died suddenly, for the first time in my life. I could not eat, just could not. This big boned mama who had made it to 300 pounds before gastric bypass saved her life could not eat so much as a piece of toast.

    After about a month or so, a weird thing started happening: I began hoarding food. All of my cabinets, my refrigerators, all were crammed with all kinds of food, healthy and not-so-healthy. I was living by myself but I had enough food to feed a family of five for a month.

    Six years later, I still struggle with it. I did some studying about hoarding, and apparently it’s not an unusual response to grief. It’s about controlling your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My condolences on the tragic death of your son, Wendy. No matter how many years go by, that kind of unspeakable loss must be devastating to a mother. I’m guessing that your own initial response to this tragedy (not being able to eat a thing) is common, especially at the beginning.

      I’m not a healthcare professional but your ‘lack of control’ theory does make some kind of sense.The one thing you do have control over is purchasing groceries. I’m guessing that, given your gastric bypass, you’re not actually eating all of this food, just filling your home with it. I hope that you’ll be able to make an appointment with a therapist to gain some perspective on this. Best of luck to you….


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  3. My dad just passed away and all I’m craving is candy, chocolate milk, and cheese. Otherwise, I can barely eat. But if I could drink a glass of chocolate milk full of snickers bars right now, I would be fine with it. I’ve never experienced anything like this, even during pregnancy. The only thing holding me back is that my dad died from heart disease brought on by diabetes.


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  5. People deal with sadness and stress differently. While some eat more, others eat much less. While it’s sometimes hard, it’s important to be aware of how we are treating our bodies during difficult times.


  6. Brilliant. Sums up perfectly what our family experienced last fall after my dad’s death, we just could not seem to stop these crazy cravings for sweet and starchy comfort foods. Luckily for our heart health and our waistlines, they did not last long and we soon got back to “normal” eating. Funny thing was that my father had been a lifelong health nut – he would have been very disapproving of our sudden crazy menu choices.

    My condolences to you on the passing of your mother. Sweet photo of her and her Easter “paska”.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Karinne. It seems that “bereavement eating” may indeed be a common phenomenon. I too love that happy picture of my mother.


  7. Carolyn, what a beautiful photo of your mother with her tasty dessert! That is indeed what we do when a family is in crisis. And I suspect it crosses all barriers ethnic, racial, cultural, and political! (hey maybe that would work with our US Congress!)

    Funerals, weddings, graduations, and christenings may bring a family together as no such planned ‘reunion’ does, but it always centers around the table, doesn’t it?

    I was with a friend yesterday sharing about food, carbs, weight loss (or not) and the constant struggle it is for me. She said she finally got a handle on it by only having foods around that she only so-so liked. Nothing she LOVES or could CRAVE. Perhaps that’s the price to pay. She has been at goal weight for years……not to say without a struggle and a set back at times……..but it seems to work for her.

    And I’m thinking……thinking……….thinking.

    You are in my prayers as you journey through this loss of mother time. It’s been 35 years since my Mom left this earth…….and I do still miss her.



    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Lynn. Your mother must have died at a relatively young age. I was just reading this yesterday: “We may have lived enough years to be an adult, but we will always be a child in relation to our parents. Even if we find ourselves ‘parenting our parents’ before their deaths, it is the parent of our youth and childhood that we bury.” Isn’t that the truth?

      BTW, If I took your friend’s good advice, I’d have nothing in my fridge but liver and brussels sprouts.


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