Usually, when we think of grief, it is related to losing a loved one or a pet, or something extremely important. The word “grief” comes from the Latin word gravare “make heavy” and gravis “weighty”1. Ironically, in your process to lose weight you will become physically lighter, but may feel emotionally “weighty” or heavy. If you have tried to lose weight before, you know firsthand that grief does not just happen when you lose a loved one. Making major changes to your diet and lifestyle, and realizing that you cannot use food in the way you once did, constitutes a major loss. For some, food has been a good friend, support, strength, comfort, and love. When you give up using food in this way, it can feel like a major loss, and that sets forth a grieving process.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed a model called “The Five Stages of Grief” after working with hundreds of dying patients. She concluded that people experiencing grief and loss go through a process that includes five distinct stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
Interestingly, after working with hundreds of individuals struggling to lose weight and keep it off, I have noticed a common process… they have all expressed a “death-like” feeling of their old eating habits, which caused them to go through Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief”. I call this process “Food Grief.”
If you are currently striving to lose weight and change your relationship with food, it is helpful for you to understand what to expect. Continue reading below to learn more about the “The Five Stages of Food Grief”.
This stage is characterized by the denial of the loss of food in your life. I am sure you can recall the day that you decided to commit to your weight loss program. You cleaned out your pantry and your fridge and replaced your usual work lunches and dinners with grilled chicken and veggies. You were motived and committed to your new meal plan. At this time, I am sure your friends and family noticed the changes you were making and you fielded questions such as, “Don’t you miss bread and sugar?” and “Aren’t you starving?” But, you were committed and you defended your new diet. So, you replied to their comments with passionate reassurances of, “Oh, I would not change a thing. This is so easy. I don’t even miss my Starbucks. Really, I’m great!”
Eventually, though, that enthusiasm becomes difficult to uphold. As much as you convinced yourself that giving up all the food you have ever known and loved is no big deal, the reality starts to slowly set in. You begin to realize you are missing and pining over your favorite foods. Let’s face it; it is not fun or easy to be the one eating lettuce with Waldon Farms dressing while everyone else eats pasta, bread, and desserts. You begin to distance yourself slowly. Soon, you stop going out for lunch with your coworkers or happy hour after work with your friends. You find yourself making excuses for why you can’t join them. You are starting to look and feel better, but you are now isolating yourself from friends and family. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described this stage as a temporary response that carries you through the first surge of sorrow. Even if you knew for a while you needed to have a healthier lifestyle, you still somehow thought, “This only happens to other people, and not to me.” You may also tell yourself, “I can’t believe I have to give up chocolate and all of my favorite foods.” Once you are bumped out of denial and you realize you are mourning the loss of food, the grief becomes powerful. At this point, you will likely transition to the next stage, which is anger.
This stage presents itself in many different ways. You may be angry with yourself for “letting this happen and gaining so much weight”. You may be angry because genetics has played a role in your metabolism and/or chemistry and this is something you cannot change. You may be angry because you know you need to control your carbohydrate and sugar intake, eliminate fast food, and increase your veggie consumption, but you have lived this way for a long time and it is difficult to change. You are ultimately angry because YOU are the one that has to do all of the work. Regardless, this stage can be extremely overwhelming, especially if you previously used food to cope with your anger. You may even experience a “food swing”, or a food “mood swing”, and it is a very real collision where food cravings, hunger, and anger collide2. Don’t give in. “Good mood foods” are included in the RM3 diet, and will lift your negative moods. But experiencing anger is a necessary stage of the grieving process. If you allow yourself to feel your anger, the feeling will eventually lessen. Don’t let anyone diminish the importance of your anger, including you. Once the anger subsides, the grief over the loss of food will transform once again into bargaining.
Bargaining is your attempt to regain control by trying to postpone the inevitability of permanently changing your eating habits. In this stage you will hear yourself say, “Well, maybe I can have just a little (sugar, cookies, fast food, salt)” or “One or two glasses of wine won’t hurt me.” You torture yourself with a series of: “If only….” and “What if’s”.
“If only I didn’t have a slow metabolism, an injury, was in menopause, etc.”
“If only I didn’t like bread or sugar”
“If only I liked healthier foods”
“What if I only have one bite…” or one cheat meal, or one cookie, etc.
This stage is dangerous. Researcher Nicole Mead, a renowned international psychologist, reported that when people are faced with a temptation, like cookies, they experience an internal struggle between eating it (pleasure) and not eating it (restraint and deprivation). “Eating is a natural human tendency whereas restraint is unnatural for humans and therefore effortful,” explains Mead3.
If you are not careful, you can bargain yourself right back to your old eating habits because for most of us, having just a little today triggers us to have a little tomorrow, next week and next month. And, before you know it, you are back to your old ways and your starting weight or heavier!
Now, you are out of denial, you are no longer angry, and you are done bargaining because you realize that if you want to be thin and healthy, you cannot go back to your old eating habits. You now understand that you, and only you, are responsible for your weight loss and overall wellness. So, the sadness sets in and you actually mourn the death of your old lifestyle. Tears may roll down your face while you say goodbye to your beloved foods. Change, especially a lifestyle change, is not an easy process. In fact, those who just bypass the grief process often are unable to sustain long-term weight loss. The good news is, if you hang in there, this phase passes rather quickly and normalcy returns. In this stage, it is important to remind yourself that you cannot go back to your old eating habits and lifestyle without serious physical, mental, emotional consequences. I have a favorite quote which reminds me of this truth, “If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got”.
So, when everyone at work goes out for lunch, you can choose to get a salad. While everyone digs into cake at a birthday party, you can choose to have fruit. According to nutritional psychology, the food you consume affects how you feel. 95% of your serotonin production is in your gastrointestinal tract, and serotonin is a key neurotransmitter that regulates your moods. The food you eat influences your mental health, and diets high in vegetables and protein have shown to lower the risk of depression by 25-35%4. Use this insight as extra motivation to stick to your RM3 plan.
Sometimes it is lonely and sad, but remember it is okay to feel this way once in a while. However, if you find that depression over your new lifestyle is affecting you more than you can handle, please talk about it with your provider or seek professional help by scheduling an individual counseling session at our Scottsdale location with Dr. Kim, our Behavioral Weight Loss Specialist.
Once you are no longer feeling sad and sorry for yourself, you begin the phase of actually accepting and adjusting to your new healthy lifestyle. In this stage, you learn what does and does not work for you and how to make compromises and permanent lifestyle changes. It is during the acceptance stage that you begin to make the connection between your ability to control what you eat and how you feel without using food. In this stage, you feel comfortable being social again and are able to explain your meal choices without too much science or shameless preaching. This is a great and perfectly attainable place to be, and the end-goal for every journey to better health.
1“Grief”. Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/grief
2(July 2012). “Squash Anger and Get ‘Good Mood Food’”. PR Newswire. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/squash-anger-and-get-good-mood-food-fortified-162335046.html
3Hussar, April. (February 2012). “Study: Yes, You CAN Resist a Junk Food Craving (Here’s How)”. SELF. https://www.self.com/story/study-yes-you-can-resist-a-jun
4Selhub, Eva. (March 2020). “Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food”. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626