Dear Aunt Fattie,
My father is dying. The end is very close – he’s in his final hours. In the past, I’ve always been unable to eat in times of extreme stress. My stomach would knot up and the mere thought of food would nauseate me. A bad breakup could be counted on for a 20 – 30 lb weight loss.
This time is different. The only thing that seems to help me cope with my grief is food. I just want to eat and eat and eat all the time, even when I just finished eating and couldn’t possibly be physically hungry. And it’s all high fat and/or high sugar foods that I’m craving – pizza and nachos and ice cream and rich desserts. I feel bloated and sluggish and I still can’t stop eating.
How do I stop this constant grief eating and get through this without a significant weight gain?
– Grief Eater
First of all, Aunt Fattie’s heart goes out to your family. Her advice is no longer as immediate as it once was, so she realizes that your father may have passed by now; in any event, she sends deepest condolences. Illness and death in the family are profoundly difficult experiences. And that is why you must take care of yourself in this trying time. But how does one define “taking care of yourself,” when what you want and what you’ve been told is healthy are so different?
Comfort eating is often derided as a kind of mental disorder, or at least a broken coping strategy. Women who are apologizing for their eating habits will often say “I’m an emotional eater” — as though we weren’t all emotional eaters. Have you ever tried to have a pleasant conversation with someone who’s having a blood sugar crash? Food is supposed to affect our emotions; we take pleasure and comfort in food, and feel anxious and irritable when we can’t have it, not because we are weak but because food is pleasurable and comforting and good for the brain. And it can be hard to find good research on this, because most of the dollars are tied up in showing the negative effects of fat, but there’s evidence that dietary fat in particular — the stuff you’re craving — can mitigate anxiety and depression.
So first of all, Aunt Fattie enjoins you to please let go of the idea that you should be restricting yourself at this difficult time. Food is doing you good now. You need extra comfort, and food provides comfort; your continued ability to function through a personal tragedy is many zillions of times more important than the ten pounds you may or may not gain. Your father is dying — the last thing you need is to also feel like you’re dieting. If this isn’t your normal eating pattern, it’s unlikely that any gain will be permanent. Surely some of your skirts have elastic. You’ll make it through.
But you also complain about feeling bloated and sluggish, and that doesn’t help when confronting grief. One wants to feel, perhaps, a little dulled, but one feels ill enough when dealing with something like this without also feeling poisoned by one’s food. So how do you mediate between not denying yourself the legitimate emotional assistance that food can provide, and not feeling like you’re compromising your health? Back to those studies: as with all science there is conflicting evidence, but several studies suggest that it’s specifically omega-3 fatty acids and other unsaturated fats (the so-called “healthy fats”) that affect your mood. Our bodies’ messages are often rather crude and difficult to interpret, and it could be that the call you’re hearing for nachos and pizza would be better served by an omelet, a nice piece of salmon, or a handful of pecans. (Or all the pecans you feel like eating — again, this is not the time to restrict.) When you just need a piece of pizza but also can’t stand the thought of eating any more pizza, try taking yourself out for a nice, unsaturated-fat-heavy meal; it may help your brain without loading you up with chemicals and other things that might make you feel icky.
Again, Aunt Fattie cannot stress this enough: Do not make conscious efforts to cut down on your food intake right now. If you feel you are developing a serious problem with binge eating, you can process that, along with your grief, at a less fraught and emotional time. You do not have, and should not feel the need to generate, the resources right now to worry too much about what you’re eating, and food restriction is emotionally unhealthy at the best of times. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to figure out what will truly nourish and satiate you, not just what seems easy and comforting — especially when the easy and comforting foods aren’t always making you feel better. You know those friends who are hopefully calling, asking what they can do to help? They can go to the supermarket and find you some food that will shore up your emotions without depressing your body. And then they can cook it up for you, too.
And if it turns out that this doesn’t help, and you really do just need to eat nachos and ice cream for a few months, while you get through what is probably the most difficult time in your life? Then by god, you eat nachos and ice cream for a couple of months. Sometimes what’s healthiest for you doesn’t match up with the FDA’s food pyramid, and that’s okay. A few months of supposedly unhealthy food won’t kill you, and it might just get you through.
If you’ve got your own questions on fat, fatshion, fatiquette, self-esteem, or body image, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.