Your Diet and the Five Stages of Grief

Diet and grief

Grief does not just happen when you lose a loved one. You also experience difficult emotions such as pain and sadness after a receiving a health diagnosis that will change your life. Especially when it comes to your diet, in some ways, you may be losing a good friend.

There is a reason we call it comfort food. When we feel sad, we tend to reach for such foods as chocolate, ice cream and chips. Although these foods are obviously not the best for our overall health, they do actually help us feel better in that they activate parts of the brain associated with mood.

"Emotional eating is a coping mechanism to deal with intense feelings, stress, or depressed moods - our urge to eat is strongly driven by our moods and emotions," says Treena Wynes, a wellness consultant in Saskatoon, Canada.

Therefore, it makes sense that if we are diagnosed with a condition in which we must adjust our diet/lifestyle, we go through an actual period of grieving for what once was.

As a dietitian, I often counsel people on what they “should” and “should not” be eating in order to improve their health. Many are still reeling from a diagnosis, such as heart disease, diabetes, or a food allergy/intolerance. Now, they are faced with the knowledge that some of their all-time favorites must be given up in order to optimize their health outcome.

Some – for good reason – call this a “love/hate” relationship with food. I actually would define it as a true grieving process.

The “Five Stages of Grief” were first described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. During mourning, we all move between these five stages, though not necessarily in the order they are described. But just as you would mourn a loved one, you do also “mourn” a life-phase before you are accepting of your new life.


1. Denial
Have you recently been diagnosed with diabetes, had a heart attack, or have high blood pressure? Have you been told that you need to lose weight? Many chronic health conditions that are common among adults today have a dietary component that must be changed. But even as we hear the word coming from the doctor’s mouth, we say “no, this can’t be happening to me.”

Kubler-Ross describes this as a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain. Even if our subconscious has told us for some time we need to have a healthier diet, we still somehow thought “this happens to other people, not to me.”

2. Anger
Yes, you know that you need to control your carbohydrate intake, cut out fast food, or remove the salt shaker from the table. But darn it, you have lived this way all your life and it is HARD. Anger often comes after the denial wears off. You may be angry at yourself for “letting this happen.” You may be angry because genetics has played a role in your diagnosis and this is something you cannot change.
At this point, you need to accept your anger. It is a very natural reaction that happens to just about everyone. But don’t let it overshadow your need to get well.

3. Bargaining
Here is where you say “Well, I can have just a little (sugar, cookies, fast food, salt).” As a dietitian, I often recommend that people accommodate “celebrations” in to their diets when possible. When you are trying to lose weight, for example, if it is all-or-nothing, you are headed down a path to fail. But, for many, having just a little today, a little tomorrow, etc….down the line, you are back to your old ways.

Plus, unfortunately, for some, “a little” is just not possible. Celiac patients and those with food allergies/intolerances – even just a little is very harmful to health. Do not bargain or take a chance. It is just not worth the risk.

4. Depression
Even after you have accepted your new way of life, there will be times that you are sad. I find this especially to be true around the holidays or other special times. We are used to eating/drinking what we want at parties, but now we must control what we take in so that we do not send our blood sugar through the roof or wreck a calorie budget. It’s okay to be sad once in a while. But if you find that depression over your new lifestyle is taking more of you than it should, please see a health care professional for help.

In addition, remind yourself regularly why you need to take care of yourself – for long life, for a healthy active life, for your family – whatever is important to you.

5. Acceptance
Sometimes it can take some time to come to this stage. Some say that it takes 21 days before something is a habit. I say (from personal experience) that it takes much longer to completely accept your new lifestyle, especially when adopting a new diet. There are many bumps and hurdles along the way. But over time you will learn how to conquer them, and accept that good health is far more important than the fleeting happy feeling you get from a doughnut.

References Include:
Psych Central - 5 Stages of Loss and Grief