Bereavement Eating: does grief cause carb cravings?

20 Feb

by Carolyn Thomas  (originally published here shortly after my mother’s death this week in 2012)

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 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 potato-and-cheddar-stuffed perogies (varenyky) with buttery sautéed onions and bacon, topped with mountains of sour cream. Yes, real sour cream, not that low-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. My mother would have been so pleased to see her five children, 11 grandchildren and oh-so-many extended family members talking, laughing, and most importantly, 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 on the weekend 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 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 simply 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 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 was  eventually tossing heart-smart salads and grilling salmon once again following Mom’s funeral.

The fifth edition of the medical text Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5) officially (and preposterously!) include the normal depressive state of bereavement as a form of mental illness if it lasts more than two weeks- 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 more serious psychiatric disorder:

  • death of a loved one, friend, or acquaintance
  • health crises
  • financial woes
  • 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 creamy rice pudding with her hot maple sauce . . .

And as Ellen Kanner observes:

“Food shared in the midst of sorrow allows for a moment of respite, of grace. It reminds us that even when there is loss, there is love.”

© 2013 Carolyn Thomas  www.myheartsisters.org

My mom Joanie with her famous Easter paska

My mom Joanie with her famous Easter paska

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Q: Do you have a favourite comfort-food carb?

See also:

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6 Responses to “Bereavement Eating: does grief cause carb cravings?”

  1. Anna Maria Maroni May 11, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    Ohh carbs how we all love you – seriously I wasn’t too sure about the connection until it happened to me.

    After losing a very close friend of 13 years I went straight for masses of carbs and it was almost like numbing the pain of it all. I was OK after I got my potatoes.

    This is an interesting article and something I will be paying close attention to for awhile to come.

    Thanks.

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas May 11, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

      “I was okay after I got my potatoes” – I love that line, Anna Maria. I too consider potatoes – especially mashed potatoes! – the ultimate comfort food.

      Like

  2. Jan Henderson February 20, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    I’m sorry to hear of the death of your mother, Carolyn. My condolences. It sounds like she was much loved and is remembered with great fondness.
    Jan

    Like

  3. Dee Madscientist February 20, 2013 at 5:36 am #

    I’ve gained 10 pounds since my mother died 7.25.10, now I’ve just lost my father 2.1.13. I would love some brisket and mashed potatoes right now …. but I gave up meat for lent!

    Great article for those of us in mourning.

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas February 20, 2013 at 6:12 am #

      Hello Dee – my condolences to you on your Dad’s recent death.

      Like

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