In the first few weeks of grief, I found that I couldn’t eat very much at all, let alone cook
Looking after your health and wellbeing may not feel like much of a priority after you’ve lost
someone important. Your loss may have left you with little appetite or, alternatively, a need
to comfort eat. Sometimes, in the initial stages of grief, all we can really do is to eat whatever
we can manage and not worry too much about whether it’s healthy or not.
If I were just a nutritional therapist, I might say different and advocate that it’s essential to eat a nutritious and balanced diet after loss, but I’m not just a nutritional therapist, I’m also a bereaved mother and a widow so I understand that eating well when you’re grieving is sometimes easier said than done.
In the first few weeks of grief, I found that I couldn’t eat very much at all, let alone cook.
However, I knew it was vital not to go too long without eating as this adversely affects blood
sugar, potentially making us feel worse than we already do.
I was also aware that stress uses up nutrients fast – and grief is very stressful. If you’re lucky, some kind friends or neighbours may bring you meals in the first few days or weeks. Some may even offer to shop for you. These can be the best ways people can practically support you if you don’t yet feel up to making meals or shopping.
Sooner or later though, you will need to feed yourself, and others too if you have a family,
but again, when your world has been turned upside down, it’s fine to eat whatever you feel
like and whatever is easiest.
There were days when I’d planned to cook a proper meal, only to feel unable to do so when it came to making the effort – but that’s okay, let yourself off the hook. If, for a while, you end up having more takeaways, cake or chocolate than usual, don’t worry about it. In fact, take any small enjoyment where you can get it.
However, in time, you will find it helpful, both physically and mentally, to get into a healthy,
balanced eating routine because you will honestly feel better for doing so. We can’t do
anything to change what’s happened to us, but we can take measures to try to minimise some of the physical damage that grief can do. Unfortunately, grief can increase inflammation, affect your immune system, compromise your digestion, cause brain fog and deplete your energy levels.
Research shows that the stress of grief can potentially lead to some serious health issues, such as cancer, heart disease and broken heart syndrome - so the better your diet is, the stronger you will be physically. That, in turn, will then have an effect on your emotional wellbeing too.
I found I didn’t have the energy or the brain capacity to follow a recipe in the first few
months. In time, though, I did go back to making more complex meals and eating well again
which felt like considerable progress, as well as a positive attempt to help myself feel as well
as was possible under the circumstances.
Here are a few simple suggestions to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need for your health and wellbeing after loss…
Try to aim for:
5-6 portions of vegetables and 1-2 of fruit each day
Protein (with every meal) - eggs, nuts, meat, fish or plant-based (tofu, beans, lentils, chickpeas)
Complex carbs - quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, lentils, oats
Fats – oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil
Here are a few of the manageable, nutritious and easily assembled meals that I often suggest to my bereaved clients:
Full fat plain yogurt with a large swirl of almond butter, some pumpkin and/or chia seeds and berries
Chocolate porridge made with plant-based milk and a little cacao powder, plus nuts/nut butter, seeds, berries
Omelette with spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms or peas and feta cheese
Leftovers from the night before (key tip – making extra means next day’s lunch becomes a no-brainer)
Quick assembly of falafel with houmous (or alternatively a tin of tuna), avocado, cherry tomatoes, beetroot and salad leaves
Salmon/chicken/tofu, broccoli and red pepper stir fry with garlic, lemon and tamari with brown rice (from a ready cooked pouch for convenience).
Bean and veggie chilli with quinoa, sliced avocado and a dollop of yogurt
Chicken or halloumi in lime and chilli with oven roasted peppers, aubergine, sweet potatoes and a green salad on the side.
If you feel in need of a sweet treat then dark chocolate will provide some magnesium and antioxidants and also help stimulate some feel-good endorphins.
As grief sometimes comes in waves, when you’re having a better day, you could batch cook
so that you then have a few healthy meals in the freezer to use when the grief hits again and
you feel less up to cooking.
You can find healthy recipes on the blog page of my website.
Limit coffee as your adrenal glands and nervous system will probably already be
over-stimulated and working overtime due to the stress of grief.
Alcohol is generally best avoided as it can disrupt sleep which you will need more
than ever. Sleep is when the body does its repair work and also when you start to
process what has happened to you emotionally.
Getting out in nature for a walk has been shown in numerous studies to help our
Exercise is useful for expending the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol,
which, if excessive, can become problematic after a traumatic event. Exercise also
increases the levels of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers and mood boosters.
Not being able to sleep when you’re grieving can feel like additional torture.
Supplements or herbs (on the recommendation of a qualified practitioner) can
certainly help here and you could also try a breathing technique like the 4-7-8 method
(breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 7 and breathe out slowly through the mouth for
8), which can effectively calm your nervous system if you’re feeling anxious.
Weight Loss or Weight Gain
Weight loss is common when you’re in shock and unable to eat very much. Weight gain may
come about if you begin to use food as a way to comfort yourself. You may even find you
experience both at different stages of the grieving process.
Be gentle on yourself. All being well, you will, given time, come back to a natural balance. If not, and either become problematic, please seek support from an appropriate professional.
Dehydration in Grief
It’s thought that emotional tears contain stress hormones, which the body releases in the
process of crying. Another theory is that crying triggers the body to release endorphins in
order to make us feel better.
However, you can potentially become dehydrated from crying during intense grief so it’s a good idea to make sure you drink plenty of water.
In view of the effects the stress of grief can have on our immune, nervous and digestive
systems, a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement can be viewed as valuable, if
not essential back-up. This is especially true if you’re either not eating very well or not eating
As stress affects the health of the gut microbiome, which is important for all aspects of
health, it can be helpful to take a probiotic at this time too.
I have used (both personally and with grieving clients) various effective supplements for
aiding sleep and calming anxiety. There are also supplements that can help with mild to
moderate depression and that have been shown in studies to be as effective as antidepressants but without the side effects.
As nutritional therapists, we don’t use a ‘one size fits all’ approach, so specific supplement protocols will vary and we are mindful that some supplements may be contraindicated with certain medication.
If you experience physical symptoms you’re very concerned about, then you should contact
your GP. However, booking a consultation with a BANT-registered nutritional therapist for
personalised advice on diet and supplements can be a really good way to support yourself
during the grieving process, particularly if you’re struggling with anxiety, low mood, sleep,
fatigue, digestive symptoms, brain fog and so on.
Feed your soul
Proactively looking after yourself during grief can give you back some control at a time when
you may feel like you have none. Getting the nutrients necessary for health and wellbeing is
extra important when we’re grieving and it can be a crucial form of self-care that helps to
nurture mind, body and soul, supporting us as we move through challenging times. Please get in touch if you’d like further support.
Vanessa May is a BANT registered nutritional therapist as well as a holistic grief coach. This
advice is taken from Vanessa’s first book ‘Love Untethered’ (Ayni Books Nov 2022) available to pre-order from Amazon and Waterstones.