Divorce and food. Not two concepts you normally think of together, but many women in the midst of divorce experience an unexpected, and often unwelcome, association between the two. While some of us admittedly eat to comfort or distract ourselves, others may simply notice an unexplained increase in the number on the scale and be struggling to turn it around with diet, exercise, and willpower, even though you’re doing everything “right.”
Here’s why this happens. First and foremost, when you are under stress your body is in a physiologic state of “fight or flight”, producing hormones such as cortisol and insulin that signal the body to store more weight, increase fat and decrease muscle-building and calorie-burning. Even low-level, chronic stress can have this effect, so it’s no wonder your body is holding on to weight given the turmoil of divorce.
Secondly, the connection between food and love is deeply rooted – it’s hardwired into us from the time our mothers first held and fed us at the breast. And of course, most of us learned in childhood that a scoop of ice cream or a slice of cake takes away the pain of a skinned knee, visit to the dentist, etc. We’ve essentially been trained to believe that food equals love and comfort.
Enter the world of divorce and the associated grief, pain, and loss of relationships, and it’s really no surprise that we’d be reaching for the Ben & Jerry’s. Seriously, how many movies have you seen where a jilted woman drowns her sorrows in a quart of ice cream?
However, for many women this pattern becomes the default – the primary mode of self-care during a difficult time – and one that eventually causes more pain than comfort, leading to unwanted weight, compromised health, low self-confidence and poor body image. It’s what we often refer to as emotional eating, or in the words of author Geneen Roth, “a way we leave ourselves when life gets hard.”
If unwanted weight, eating habits or a feeling of powerlessness with food have become a side-effect of your divorce, there are several things you can do to gently shift this, and the good news is they don’t involve dieting or depriving yourself! Trying to diet your way out of the situation is almost sure to fail. Fact: 96-99% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back, and diets don’t address the root cause of overeating!
Reduce your stress
Easier said than done, I know but here’s why this is so important: Aside from the obvious stressors of divorce, even just negative self-talk and judgement (i.e. “I hate my ex,” “I hate my thighs,” “I blame myself”) can create stress chemistry in the body. Therefore it’s critical – both from a psychological and physical perspective – to create some space in your life for relaxation, stillness and acceptance. This could be a yoga class, spending regular time in nature, or taking time to sit and enjoy a meal without guilt – whatever it takes to slow down, quiet your mind, breathe and let go. And make sure you get enough of these essential ‘vitamins’ for lasting weight loss.
Drop the labels
When you label yourself an emotional eater, stress eater, food addict, etc., you take on the associated behaviors and rules of the label by default. The label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it’s how you see yourself and you make your choices based on that identity. Instead, reclaim your power by viewing yourself as a woman who is learning about herself through her relationship with food and exploring new choices. What you resist persists. So rather than labeling your eating behavior as bad and then fighting resisting and struggling with it, get curious. What is it trying to teach you about taking care of yourself in this new chapter of your life?
Be aware of your triggers
What is most likely to drive you to eat when you’re not really hungry? Is it a frustrating conversation with your ex? Or is it loneliness, isolation or guilt that drives you to the pantry? Notice if you are eating to numb out, or to fill up. Understanding which emotions and experiences trigger you enables you to explore alternatives, and to prepare in advance to care for yourself in more self-honoring ways.
Pay attention to your cravings
We spend a lot of time in judgement around our repetitive food cravings, especially for “forbidden” foods. But cravings are actually great clues about what we are truly hungry for. Instead of condemning and restricting yourself, ask what the food you are craving might represent to you. Salty, crunchy things can be associated with needing to release anger and tension, whereas sweets can be a longing for love or pleasure, or the desire to feel sweeter when we are consumed by bitterness. Spicy, ethnic foods can signal a desire for adventure and stimulation. Tune in and discover you’re your cravings has to teach you, and then brainstorm three other ways to satisfy that hunger.
Remember that it’s a process
Coincidentally, as I write this I am being confronted once again with my own eating triggers. Although my ex moved out two years ago, I’ve just sold our marital home and am preparing to move into a smaller place with my children. Although I welcome the fresh start, I’m experiencing the sadness, stress, fear, and uncertainty all over again as my divorce continues to unfold. So I’m really putting these concepts into practice lately!
Know that hard times in life are going to come up, but you don’t have to respond in the same old ways, and you don’t have to abandon yourself through food. The strategies above will help you cultivate the self-compassion that will ultimately help you and your metabolism thrive!
What food cravings do you get? What clues do your cravings give you? What healthy substitute could you use to satisfy your cravings?
Michelle Leath is a certified food psychology coach, mentor, speaker, and the founder of UnlockYourPossibility.com. She teaches women how to harness the power of possibility, permission and pleasure to create the lives they truly want and deserve. She specializes in helping women create a relationship with food and their bodies that works for them, so that they can release unwanted weight or food habits without dieting or depriving themselves, and so they can fuel themselves for success in their businesses, lives, and relationships. Having found her own recovery from an eating disorder, Michelle is passionate about helping others heal their food issues, and she also publishes a blog on eating disorder recovery at www.michelleleath.com.
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