Bereavement eating: does grief cause carb cravings?

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

(originally published here after my mother’s death nine years ago today)

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 in 2012 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.         .               .

U.K. food writer Grace Dent recently wrote a brilliant piece in The Guardian on this notion of eating and grief:

“As a child, I learned that, although funerals were to be dreaded and the church part was weird and jarring, the buffet afterwards would taste like delicious, carefully restored semi-sanity.”

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 women gather to cook after a death in our 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 Food Network 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. I know that my mother would have been so pleased to see her five children, 11 grandchildren and oh-so-many extended family members talking, laughing, sharing stories and most importantly, enjoying comfort food together on the evening of her funeral.  As we had acknowledged in her obituary:

“Somewhere in heaven today is the aroma of Mom’s famous home-baked 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. With butter.

No carrots. No salad. No interest whatsoever in eating anything even remotely heart-healthy. As California dietitian 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 adrenal glands, 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.

As Dr. Marcelle Pick reminds us in her book Are You Tired & Wired?, bereaved people have good reason to feel temporarily depressed, distressed and grief-stricken about the loss of someone they care about. In other words, it is utterly NORMAL to feel very sad during sad times.

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  situational depression – and not necessarily a more serious psychiatric disorder:

  • death of a loved one/friend/acquaintance
  • health crises (like a cardiac event)
  • 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 do benefit from specific meds to help them through this – but for mild to moderate situational depression called grief, here’s a thought:

We could go for a long walk outdoors with other grieving family members or friends, and then we could dig up one of our mother’s favourite recipes and whip up some nice comforting carbs together  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.”

© 2021 Carolyn Thomas  www.myheartsisters.org
My mom Joanie with her famous Easter paska
Joanie Zaruk with her famous Easter paska  ~ May 7, 1928-February 21, 2012

..

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

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I included more on coping with situational grief and/or depression in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

See also:

When Your Mother Dies

A Motherless Mother’s Day

Is it Post-Heart Attack Depression – or Just Feeling Sad?

Why I’m Nothing Like – Yet Just Like – My Mother

When Grief Morphs into Depression: Five Tips for Coping With Heart Disease

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

.

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

  1. Two days after you posted this, my best friend passed away. It was not unexpected and a relief after a long painful illness. I was quite prepared for this, and so far my response has been very balanced between short crying spells and Joy for her release.

    I’m being careful to take the time and allow my emotions to express themselves. Short bits of chest pain remind me how much the chemistry of emotion, particularly grief, can affect the heart. I have experienced an episode of TakotSubo or Stress Cardiomyopathy in the past so I do not care to have the experience again!

    So far, strangely, no carb cravings at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My condolences to you, Jill, on the death of your friend. I understand that dual reality of feeling sad because she’s gone and because you will miss her – and at the same time relieved that she’s no longer suffering. Both sentiments are important to validate and acknowledge – and it sounds like your attention to both is helping you at such an important time.

      Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

  2. Hi Carolyn,

    There’s a reason certain foods are known as comfort foods – they deliver immediate comfort! After all, for many of us, food was/is an expression of love. Food alone didn’t equal love in my household when I was growing up, but it was surely part of the equation. I wonder which foods, if any, my adult children would say bring them comfort via memories of me cooking them. Ha! Might have to ask them sometime.

    Oh, and I fear I have too many favorites to list. 🙂

    Thank you for the wonderful post and for sharing the photo of your sweet mom. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good question, Nancy – which foods would our adult kids say bring comfort via the memories of Mum making them? Mine are coming over for dinner tonight so I’ll ask.

      When they were both little, I once asked them to write down a list of their Top 10 foods – food that even if I served it every day, they’d say “Hoooray!” – instead of a suspicious “What’s that green stuff?” I was tired of working hard to put healthy meals on the table only to have them turn their noses up at my Tofu Surprise casserole. . .

      I wish I’d kept those two lists, scrawled in their little kid printing: the standard favourites were all there: spaghetti, chili, burgers, pizza. My daughter Larissa also listed: “Chicken, NOT yours.” 🙂

      Speaking of comfort, I do have a memory of my own mother concocting a brew of heated-up apple juice, whiskey and some kind of spice (nutmeg maybe?) if we were sick in bed with a cold. Quite comforting, as I recall. She’s the same mother who rubbed whiskey on my baby brothers’ gums for teething pain… (Maybe that’s a Ukrainian thing?)

      Thanks for your kind words. . . Take care, stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

    1. I agree Geri! In fact, funerals are the best places to share and hear those stories. I’ve been to many funerals of people I hardly knew (the parents of my friends, usually) where, by the end of the funeral service, I’ve heard so many intriguing stories about the deceased that I almost feel like I DID know them!

      Take care, stay safe. . . ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Carolyn, every time I read your columns I get carbohydrate cravings and want to eat Ukrainian food.

    Again, it would be much better if you devoted a whole post to kale, or celery juice. I understand that lutefisk is also good for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Carolyn, this year this post hit home with me. My carb cravings are hitting me hard right now.

    I realize that while I was telling myself that I was coping well with staying at home due to COVID19, I’m actually glossing over losses.

    I’ve had major health setbacks and missed life-changing family events. You have helped me realize that I’m grieving, albeit privately.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jenn for this – I suspect that many of us have been grieving losses (both big and small) throughout the pandemic – but not chalking up those feelings to grief. I wrote a bit more on this here after I read philosophy professor Dr. Evan Selinger’s article called “The Problem Isn’t Zoom Fatigue — It’s Mourning Life as We Knew It”. For example, he writes about what he calls the “unspoken sadness” whenever we join a video call:

      “A locked-down world without video calls would be significantly worse — more socially isolating and economically devastating. What makes the situation especially fraught is that we’ve accepted the wrong explanation of the problem.

      “The issue isn’t just about technological mediation. Our ‘burnout’ is largely due to the depressing thoughts the pandemic brings to mind during every online conversation that substitutes for one we’d prefer to have in person.”

      That perspective really struck me at the time I first read it. He also sees these times as “a reminder of a world that’s been shattered and can’t be revived. . .” Yoiks! no wonder we’re feeling sad!

      It’s not surprising so many of us are feeling this loss, and yet we know that – unlike the grief experienced through a death in the family, for example – this grief is temporary and this pandemic WILL end – but we just don’t know precisely when, which makes us feel a lack of control, which makes us think how much life has changed – and how much we’ve lost…

      All so overwhelming at times. Meanwhile, take care and stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

      1. I wasn’t referring to the loss of everyday activities during this darn pandemic, although I miss seeing friends.

        We’ve had a death in the family, which was shocking and hard to bear as we are spread across the country. A much-anticipated wedding was postponed and then carried out despite family unable to attend and celebrate.

        My health challenges were as serious as my open-heart surgeries, but no family could rally around to help.

        My philosophy has been that I’m safest if people stay away so I don’t get infected with covid19: I’ll see everyone when it’s safe to do so. Don’t worry about me. Stay safe.

        That’s what I believe, but as I look around for something chocolate to eat I recognize that I’m sad. I’m looking for simple pleasure because the life-affirming pleasure of being physically close to most of my loved ones has been, and will continue to be, absent.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s such a good point Jenn: chocolate is a very simple pleasure that IS possible right now, when so many other traditionally predictable pleasures are not.

          In August, we had a very sudden death in my own family – which was traumatic in itself, but like current pandemic restrictions re large gatherings, important connections around funerals, weddings, visiting new babies/the elderly, or caregiving for sick relatives – all expectations were just turned upside down this past year.

          I know of course that there are very sound public health reasons for such restrictions – but that doesn’t make them less difficult at those meaningful times. ♥

          Like

  5. Hello again, I think this may be the third time I’ve responded to a blog of yours. I’m not stalking you, I just get so much out of your writing. It alternatively breaks my heart because so much of it is true in a negative way and it also just cracks me up with laughter because I identify with what we used to call ghetto humor, in my Jewish Ukrainian family.

    And that’s why I am writing you again. You mentioned that you have Ukrainian ancestry. I am 100% eastern European Jew coming from the Ukraine. I have a ridiculously high amount of LP(a). I wonder if this is a genetic trait of Ukrainians or eastern Europeans. Do people who are likely to have micro vessel disease have high levels of Lp(a), a question to ponder.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think you’re stalking me, Randi – I love your comments! You raise such an interesting point with your question about what cholesterol researchers call “LP-little a” – a type of cholesterol-related condition that doesn’t respond to statins or other intensive therapies. I don’t know if there’s a higher incidence of this disorder among Eastern European or Slavic populations, but it sure makes sense (we know for example that their cardiovascular mortality rates are among the highest in the world).

      Is it all that bacon, butter and sour cream – or is it the LP(a)?!? I’ll go look this up. . .

      Meanwhile, take care and stay safe! ♥

      Like

  6. When I am tired or stressed, I crave a combination of high fat and high carb like a crock of gooey macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes with mounds of butter, creamy high fat soups.
    I am diabetic so I don’t indulge often.

    But this morning, for no reason at all, I would kill for a good cheese danish to go with my coffee!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can relate, Jill! Those cravings of yours are my cravings, too. As Evelyn Tribole’s quote goes: “You don’t want to kill for a piece of broccoli, but you’d kill for a piece of bread.”

      I’m a person who has been on some form of strict diet since age 13 (so. . . forever!) I’ve been a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers since 1977, and often say that since then, I’ve lost and regained the same 20 pounds many times.

      At W.W. in those earliest days, certain foods were actually labelled “illegal” – meaning you could never ever even in your weakest moment eat them (e.g. peanut butter!)

      Trouble is, as soon as I’m told I can NEVER eat peanut butter ever again for the rest of my natural life, all I can think about is peanut butter. . . The W.W. program has changed a lot since then – no more portrayal of certain foods as “illegal” anymore.

      But as Holly points out (comment below), knowing which types of food ( carbs! ) are the toughest to deny seems to be the key. My own strategy has evolved to this: if I don’t buy it, I won’t eat it. So if that cheese danish isn’t in my shopping cart, it won’t end up in my stomach!

      Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

      1. I was a yo-yo dieter from the age of 16. I believe the weight loss/gain pattern for over 35 years contributed to my insulin resistance and diabetes.

        In 1990 I met a woman who was a former WW instructor who recognized the terrible concepts WW was teaching and started her own classes called “Say No to Diets, Say Yes to Life”

        Strangely enough, ~10 years later, WW came out with the slogan “Stop Dieting, Start Living!”

        I even wrote a book in 1997 about intuitive eating “The 10 habits of Naturally Slim People”

        These days I don’t diet, I eat healthy and allow myself occasional indulgences. I remain overweight and I know that the only chance of ever changing that is my activity level which remains quite low due to extreme fatigue levels.

        It was your article on fatigue that came up in a google search that first brought me to Heart Sisters. It was the first time I felt someone actually understood my fatigue experience. I need to go back and read it again!

        I am off to a heart check up and probable Cardiac MRI looking for increased cardiac fibrosis …. then on to nephrology for a kidney biopsy. All in celebration of my 72nd birthday on Saturday Wheeeee! As I told my cardiologist I refuse to grow old gracefully!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Happy Birthday to you, Jill!! What a festive way you have chosen to celebrate this year! 😉

          I agree with your general disdain for yo-yo dieting, yet we can both understand, as former yo-yo dieters, how seductive the promise of ‘lose weight fast!’ can be when we start feeling bad about ourselves because the weight we worked hard to lose seems to have crept back on. . . What worked for me at W.W. were two elements: the weigh-ins each Saturday morning (seeing every week’s results adding up in my little book was very motivating!) plus the group meetings where others in the same boat understand and support other members. The W.W. program has indeed changed a lot over the years since those early unhealthy days.

          Not sure which blog post on “fatigue” you read first (here or here or here?) – but am very glad you found this space!

          Like

  7. I’m a type 2 diabetic, who also has antibodies indicating type 1 diabetes. When I was diagnosed, my A1c was 11.1 (context: the American Diabetes Association claims “normal” is 6.0 and below; others are more conservative and put the desired number below 5.5 or even lower).

    Within a year I was recognizing and dealing with shots in both eyes due to diabetic macular edema, and many other consequences of at least 20 years of undiagnosed diabetes, such as autonomic neuropathy, adrenal issues, thyroid issues, and heart disease.

    But by STRINGENT counting of carbs, I lost (and am maintaining that loss 11 1/2 years later) 90 pounds, bringing me to the weight I was leaving Army basic training in 1976.

    What do I mean by STRINGENT? The ADA recommends up to 300 g of carb a day. I aim for 30. Yep, 30. An average single slice of bread is 20. Do I have cravings? Hour by hour, minute by minute, yes.

    What do I crave most? Ah, let me see…. fruit, potatoes, everything made with flour or other grains for starters, even without significant sweetener. I would kill for that bowl of oatmeal but even using artificial sweeteners (can’t stand stevia), it would spike my glucose from my goal of under 100 to well over 300.

    But I remember the summer I was very nearly legally blind, and I (mostly) refrain. And I know from sad experience that carbs beget carb cravings. If I indulge, I pay not just in terms of my health, but in terms of my emotional well-being. I can’t eat just one cookie, one slice of toast, one bowl of oatmeal, and stop. It will haunt me for weeks, I will gain weight, and suffer depression and anger as a result. Not a happy result.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Holly for sharing that unique perspective on carb-counting. First, congrats to you on maintaining that 90-lb weight loss. That’s a remarkable achievement!! After suffering through the dreadful consequences of your undiagnosed diabetes all those years, you are clearly highly motivated to avoid all those carbs that tempt us. I’m so inspired by your story.

      Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

    2. Holly – not quite as brittle a diabetic as you are …I am thoroughly frustrated when trying to eat healthy for my heart, low sodium, low saturated fat; my diabetes low carbs; and now kidney disease…I don’t have diet instructions for that.

      But what others think of as “Healthy Foods“ can be killers to our DM2 sugars… healthy things like lentils, beans, oatmeal, whole grain quinoa send my blood sugars up to 300s. I wear a continuous glucose monitor and that has been a God send eliminating finger sticks.

      May Blessings and Good Health come your way!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Jill 🙂 It’s nice to hear someone else agree that whatever might be “healthy” for heart patients really is NOT healthy for diabetics, and since diabetes and heart disease are so closely associated…

        I had the opportunity to wear a CGM for a few days and it was showing swings of 100 points (US measurements, should have said that above) even on 30 g carb and 90 minutes on the treadmill each of those days. I was shocked it was that bad. The endocrinologist dismissed it as unimportant.

        Yet, when I started eating low carb to control my glucose to non-diabetic levels, my triglycerides, which had been well above range before that, dropped to mid-range, though I had increased the fat I eat, and without taking any statins or other cholesterol meds.

        Glucose control really, really matters, for the health of the whole body. I hope the medical establishment takes notice before much longer! I have at least one child – OK, so he’s 41! 🙂 who is almost certainly diabetic. I would like to see him get that diagnosed and under control before he dies of a heart attack like both his grandfathers and his greatgrandmother.

        Nobody wants to eat low-carb, no surprise, and he’s not willing to even try at this point. I’m not sure I would have managed without my glucose meter – instant, if sometimes unwelcome, feedback 🙂

        Like

        1. Holly – My son (37yo) was not a sugar eater but addicted to pasta and overweight. He has gone on the Keto diet, lost about 25 lbs and has stayed on it because he “feels better”.

          Like

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