Nutrition and Stress

Author: Ruth Crocker

Finding Strength for Your Grieving Body

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Naomi appeared lean and fit, although a bit pale, when she arrived at her appointment in the Nutrition Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. At first glance, before taking her history, I thought she might be a long-distance runner, an ice skater, or a gymnast.

Eating Strawberry

I had counseled many elite athletes over the years. They usually wanted to know what kind of foods would enhance their performance, and if it was true that some nutrients or supplements made it easier to build muscle. Sometimes they had an eating disorder brought on by the constant competition to be strong, but look thin. As soon as Naomi began to speak, I realized that her nutritional challenge was completely different.

“My mother thought I should see someone,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I can’t eat—I have no desire to eat. In fact I feel full all the time, but also empty.”

Naomi described a feeling of heaviness in her chest, lack of concentration, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, and frequent tears. Further conversation revealed the source of her emotional and physical state. Three months before, her fiancé had been killed in Iraq. 

Many people don’t realize that learning terrible news—being suddenly and powerfully aggrieved—triggers an automatic physical response. It’s not a sign of weakness or inability to handle emotion; it is the body’s way of trying to stay safe. 

The emotional stress of a sudden tragedy creates a physical reaction in the body. As we battle to survive, stress hormones are released from the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys. As these hormones surge throughout the body, they enable us to feel as if we can run, fight, or overcome an obstacle. These important and natural substances might enable a runner to complete a torturous marathon, but for someone experiencing grief following the sudden death of a loved one, the result of the same hormonal outpouring can affect appetite, hunger, and eating habits.

Adrenalin, the “fight or flight” hormone, increases metabolic rate making the heart beat faster and raising the blood pressure. It also takes away appetite, giving us the impression that we don’t need food. The physical effects of adrenalin are felt in the area of the heart and chest, the same place where the heart feels broken. 

Cortisol, another hormone secreted during reaction to stress, facilitates the use of carbohydrates stored in the body for quick energy. This first immediate source of energy (glycogen) is packed in the muscles like tiny firecrackers. When glycogen is gone, the body starts to use its supplies of fat and muscle, and weight loss begins if calories are not taken in. Without adequate nutrition, a body working fast and hard in reaction to either physical or emotional stress eventually begins to show other signs of stress such as sleeplessness, depression, panic disorder, malnutrition, and weakened immunity.  



Naomi described that she had eaten very little since she had received the news of her fiancé’s death. She suffered with the normal reaction that it wasn’t real—it didn’t actually happen. She was forgetful and preoccupied. She kept expecting to receive a letter, a package, or an e-mail from her beloved. She had lost fifteen pounds and was still losing.

What is the best way to help the body and mind deal with an unpreventable stress? A reaction caused by incomprehensible and shocking news that we have no power to change. Sharing thoughts about the tragedy with a trusted listener is the first step, accompanied by baby steps to replenish the nutrients, energy stores, and fluids lost during the body’s hard work to cope and survive. 

The best approach is to eat wholesome foods in small quantities: whatever is appealing. Choose fresh vegetables and fruits; whole grains; easily digestible proteins like eggs, fish, and poultry; nuts and seeds; low-fat dairy products; and water. It’s okay in the beginning to imagine that you are eating for the one you have lost. You might even begin with the foods that you know they liked. It’s not unusual to assume the mannerisms or traits of the loved one. The goal is to regain the pleasure of eating and restore a healthy appetite. 

As hunger and appetite return, there can also be a tendency to prefer soft, sweet, comfort foods (like cakes, puddings, and ice cream) that might be high in fats and simple carbohydrates. The return of appetite is a message from the body that energy is needed, but the preference for comfort foods can result in a rapid rebound in body weight by storing fat rather than replacing lost muscle. These cravings can be intensified by lack of protein and fiber in the diet. Choose protein, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates like whole grains first. Then enjoy a small amount of sweetness, preferably something like a baked apple or a fruit custard made with low-fat milk. Eat slowly and mindfully, thinking of nourishment rather than the need to fill an empty place in the heart.

Low-intensity exercise like walking is another important component of recovery. Walking at a modest pace of two or three miles per hour increases the process of the breakdown of fat and enhances the feeling of wellness. You can keep fat stores under control and improve well-being simply by moderate walking each day. If you increase the intensity of exercise too much, the body begins to need those immediate stores of glucose, and the craving for high calorie foods (usually high in fat and sugar) increases. Walking is also a way to free the mind and find peace. 

Returning to a healthy balance after a shock such as the loss of a loved one takes time and loving concern for both body and mind. 

I asked Naomi to treat herself with kindness and to remember that her fiancé would want her to take care of herself and become whole and healthy again. 

“Think of your body as a temple that needs maintenance in order to hold the memory of him,” I suggested. “Imagine that you are an athlete embarking on a slow and challenging journey. Nourish your body with good food and loving thoughts, and you will gain the strength to travel to a different place, both psychologically and physically. He’ll always be in your heart and soul, even when you get better.”

Having been in Naomi’s shoes many years ago during the Vietnam War, I understood the terrible pit of her grief. There is no real solace or cure except the offer of enough nurturance to decide to survive this moment and the next.  

Ruth CrockerBy Ruth W. Crocker, PhD, surviving spouse of CPT David R. Crocker, Jr.: Ruth W. Crocker received a PhD in Nutrition and worked in many aspects of health care including counseling and Nursing Home Administration. A desire to write about her life experiences led her back to school where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing. Her essays have appeared in magazines and literary journals. She recently completed a memoir about her experience with the Vietnam War. She serves on the National Board of the Gold Star Wives and lives and writes in Mystic, CT. Contact her at