By Jane Clarke, BSc (Hons) SRD DSc – Founder of Nourish by Jane Clarke www.nourishbyjaneclarke.com
I’ve been a nutritionist for 30 years and have been awarded an honorary doctorate for my work nourishing the unwell and vulnerable. I’ve looked after so many patients during the final weeks and days of their lives but I’ve often cared for their loved ones, too – parents whose child has died of cancer, families grieving siblings, older people coping with the loss of their life- long companion. People coping with bereavement may be unable to eat, their appetite robbed by heartbreak and sadness, and that’s a concern for anyone caring for them. But there are strategies that can help.
HOW GRIEF AFFECTS OUR BODY
Our gut is known as our body’s ‘second brain’ so it makes sense that our emotions affect our appetite and digestion. When someone is grieving,
they may literally feel like their heart is aching, they have a lump in their throat, or they struggle to sleep. These aren’t symptoms to shrug away. Studies show that grief increases inflammation in our body, which is linked to higher risk of cardiovascular problems and chronic diseases such as cancer. It reduces our immunity, making us more vulnerable to infection (the older we are, the more we are affected). Loss of appetite causes unwanted weight loss and can leave us malnourished at a time we need the energy to cope with emotional loss and all the practicalities around bereavement.
It’s easy to fall into a vicious cycle of the less we eat, the less we want to eat. Grief hits when we are often already incredibly vulnerable – when we are caring for a person, we often neglect our own wellbeing, so that when they pass away, all our reserves are gone. At the time we most need our resilience and energy, our body has nothing to fall back on.
Food and feelings have a tendency to be complicated, but grief can throw guilt and loneliness into the mix, making mealtimes even harder. My clients often tell me they feel they ‘don’t deserve to eat’ now their loved one has gone, or they can’t face eating alone. It’s an attitude many carers face while trying to support their loved ones or clients.
THE GOOD GRIEF DIET
This isn’t a time to have hard and fast food rules; encourage the person you are looking after to be kind to themselves, while also giving their body the nourishment it needs. Warm foods feel comforting and are easier on the gut than raw salads, while moist, soft meals seem to slip past that emotional ‘lump in the throat’ more easily than anything too heavy that you need to chop up and chew. Try a small bowl of vegetable soup, which will be packed with vitamins and minerals. They need protein for strength and to balance blood sugar to help them feel more resilient, so make the soup with a protein-rich stock, such as chicken, and stir in cream or shave some Parmesan on top to enrich it. Or poach a chicken in stock with lots of winter vegetables, so they have a pot of warming goodness on hand whenever you need a boost.
In the first stages of grief, the trauma can cause a surge of ‘fight or flight’ hormones which can tip the body into ‘catabolism’ – when it begins to break down the muscles, causing weakness, weight loss and that shocking gaunt look we sometimes see in the recently bereaved. Including protein- rich foods helps to cushion this effect and protect the muscles.
Grief can make it feel as if the gut is churning, or make foods usually eaten without a problem suddenly hard to digest, leading to griping pain, nausea or bloating. In this situation, it’s wise to reduce the amount of fibre in their diet, so you’ll need to avoid wholemeal bread, brown rice and pasta, raw fruit and vegetables, pulses and nuts for a while. A soft, creamy risotto will be gentle on their stomach. And root vegetables, such as car- rots, parsnips and potatoes, can be slow-cooked so they’re wonderfully soft. If you casserole them with lamb shanks and herbs, you’ll get a melt- in-the-mouth stew that will tempt them back for more.
HOW BEREAVEMENT SABOTAGES YOUR DIET
It can be tempting to replace healthy food with the type of fast fixes that fill a hole in our appetite at the time, but they won’t help in the long run. Snacking on crisps and chocolate, ready meals and other processed foods, leads to a roller coaster of sugar highs and lows that sends energy and mood crashing when a person is already struggling emotionally. While existing on caffeine can make them feel jittery and anxious.
If they are craving something sweet, encourage them to have natural unrefined sugar partnered with protein and fat to slow down the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream – a couple of dried figs or dates with walnuts is perfect. The fat and flavourings in crisps can overload your liver and aggravate a sensitive, grief-stricken gut. Instead, guide them towards some crackers or a cup of soup instead.
If they need a coffee to help them get through the day, serve it with warm milk as this adds fat and protein to the mix that will soften the caffeine effect – or pour a shot of espresso into a cup of Nourish Vanilla Drink. Tea tends to be more gentle on the body, so you may want to serve this instead for a while.