Bereavement eating: does grief cause carb cravings?

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

(originally published here shortly after my mother’s death four years ago today on February 21, 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.

Ellen Kanner is an award-winning food writer and author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner. Her beautiful Culinate essay called Brisket in Bereavement helps to explains why all those women gather to cook after a death in their community:

“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 agrees 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.

In the Wurtmans’  landmark report about the link between carbs and depression in Scientific American (Carbohydrates and Depression, January 1989) they explained 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.

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

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 oatmeal 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 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; within weeks of Mom’s funeral, I was eventually tossing heart-smart salads and grilling salmon once again.

The fifth edition of the medical textbook Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5) officially includes for the first time 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 antidepressant drugs – not surprising from a textbook that’s largely funded by the drug industry. A 2006 University of Massachusetts and Tufts University study found that over half of 170 psychiatric “experts” who helped write the previous edition of the DSM admitted financial links to drugmakersThose “financial links” included ownership of drug company stock, travel expenses, research funding, consulting fees and cash payment as gifts). (See also: How The ‘Shrink’s Bible’ Can Make You Sick)

No mention of a nice homemade brisket, mashed potatoes and gravy instead… Critics have expressed concerns that redefining bereavement could “medicalize” ordinary grief and encourage over-prescription of antidepressants. 

But as Dr. Marcelle Pick reminds us in her book Are You Tired & Wired?, bereaved people have very good reason to feel temporarily depressed, distressed and grief-stricken 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 temporary situational depression – and not necessarily (despite what the Big Pharma-supported DSM-5 psychiatrists 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. (And in fact, some people who develop severe and debilitating depression certainly benefit from specific meds to help them through this – but for mild to moderate situational depression called grief, here’s a thought:

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.”

© 2016 Carolyn Thomas
My mom Joanie with her famous Easter paska
Joan Zaruk with her famous Easter paska  – May 7, 1928-February 21, 2012


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

See also:


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

  1. Pass the potatoes, please! I definitely understand carb cravings in times of stress. It was one of the factors that led to my being 50 pounds overweight. As you pointed out, Carolyn, there is a lot happening neurologically in our brains when we eat carbs. Serotonin levels rise and we feel better! It becomes a habit for us… we’re stressed, we reach for that plate of chocolate chip cookies, we feel better, and our brains quickly record the event and file it away for future reference.

    The “habit loop” (cue…response…reward) is so quick, efficient, and powerful that in most cases we are completely unaware that it’s even happening until the box of Cheetos is gone and we’re trying to figure out, “What just happened here?”

    Our cultural traditions such as comfort food at a funeral is really just a manifestation of our societal habits. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, is a terrific exploration of what scientists have learned in the last 20 years about habits, how they are formed, and how we can tweak our bad habits to be less harmful. Charles provides some really interesting case studies of how habits have been used in social movements, the war in Iraq, and by savvy businesses trying to increase their profits margins.

    On an individual level, the book helped me reshape my carb eating stress habits into something more productive. Now, when I’m stressed, I go for a walk and grab a friend if I can. Doesn’t work every time, but my batting average is much, much higher.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My go-to carb craving is Death by Chocolate Ice Cream (literally, lol). The darker the chocolate, the better. Now, I try to keep it to a couple of pieces of 85% chocolate bar rather than ice cream. Not saying that I don’t still dream about floating in a dish of chocolate ice cream.

    Liked by 1 person

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