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Food, break ups and the heartbreak diet

Food provides us with more than just fulfilling a physiological need.  We have emotional and psychological connections with what we choose to eat or drink.  Food represents security from Fruit Smoothie by Gameannaan early age, so that in times of stress like a break up, it can form an important emotional support.

Our mood can influence our meal patterns, what we eat, how much we eat and notably our appetite.  Evidence also shows that the physical consequence of eating certain things, predispose chemical reactions which in turn cause us to feel a certain way e.g. due to the stimulation of neurotransmitters, fluctuations in blood glucose levels and deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.  Following an emotional trauma in our lives e.g. a break up, the anxiety can provoke eating as a means of coping with tension, although in some individuals stress can result in a loss of appetite and an inability to eat.

Comfort Eating after a relationship break up

“I am enjoying a relationship with two men simultaneously.  The first is called Ben, the other Jerry”   ~Bridget Jones

Some foods just make us feel good.  Often this is a short-lived effect but nevertheless it is well documented that particular foods have the ability to alter our mood.  The behaviour of ‘comfort eating’ after a break up is thought to stem from the reassurance given by food provided by parents to children, linking positive emotions with parental care and love with the food.

Certain foods bring about the release of a chemical messenger called Serotonin in the brain and this is what consequently makes us feel good.  Researchers believe a diet high in carbohydrates i.e. either sugary or starchy foods have the greatest influence on serotonin production.  ‘Binging’ on these foods frequently however is likely to bring about adverse effects, notably weight gain.

You may find that after a break up eating lots of ‘feel good’ treats becomes a regular habit.  Often this behaviour is associated with feelings of guilt and the cycle of binging and guilt can be a difficult habit to break.  If you recognise you are in this cycle, try some of the following:

  • Don’t go shopping when you are low in mood as you are likely to let your cravings rule your food choices.  Write a list before you go and stick to it, or try internet shopping so you are not tempted by the confectionary aisle or junk food offers.
  • Try writing down your daily intake for a week.  Also make a note of how you felt at the time of eating something and also whether you were hungry or not.  This mood and diet diary will help you recognise common associations or eating triggers that you have.
  • Instead of eating when your down, think of an alternative non-food related treat.  Doing some exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk causes the natural stimulation of many “mood” hormones, including Serotonin and Dopamine.  Be realistic to the amount of exercise you can achieve but remember it only takes 15-20 minutes of exercise every day to release these “feel good” hormones to help you become happy and calm.
  • Stick to regular meal patterns of ideally 3 meals a day plus 2-3 snacks in-between if you are hungry.  Avoid “grazing” throughout the day, particularly in the evening.  If it helps give yourself a “cut-off” time when you do not have anything else to eat.  Brushing your teeth following your evening meal can help discourage evening snacks and binges.


Loss of Appetite, the Heartbreak Diet

“Appetite comes with eating; the more one has, the more one would have” ~French Proverb

Our appetite is the way we describe our desire for food, felt by hunger cravings.  Appetite is the way in which our bodies ensure there is adequate energy intake to satisfy our metabolic needs.  A loss of appetite can indicate our health status; how often after a period of being unwell do we start to feel better once our appetite returns?  A poor appetite not only indicates poor health but can also lead to adverse consequences to our physical well being, notably weight loss.

Feelings of anxiety and depression are related to a reduced desire to eat.  Initially loosing some weight following a break up may present itself to you as a positive thing.  For example, when you were with your partner you were very comfortable and carrying a few extra pounds was never a problem.  Now in single life the thought of a skinnier version of yourself is quite appealing.

However weight loss that has occurred due to eating very little is not the recommended way to lose weight.  It is probable that you are starving your body of essential nutrients, which in turn is likely going to cause you to feel even worse, and could have potential implications to your long term health.  Rapid weight loss and poor appetite is related to lethargy, depression, wakened muscle strength, reduced brain function and poor skin, hair and nail health.

Unfortunately there is no cure for a poor appetite.  The easiest way to improve your appetite is to break the downwards spiral of not eating.  If you think you are in this situation, try some of the following:

  • Plan your meals for the day and try not to skip meals.  If it’s easier aim for 5-6 small meals or snacks every 2-3 hours e.g. a bowl of cereal, a sandwich, a couple of slices of toast with beans, cheese or a topping of your choice, a bowl of soup, some crackers and cheese, a yogurt, a scone/crumpet/slice of cake etc.
  • If a meal is too much, try a nourishing drink e.g. a milkshake, a fruit smoothie with yoghurt, a hot chocolate, a milky coffee etc.  Sometimes it’s easier to drink something than face eating, but don’t become reliant on drinks and keep attempting to eat something everyday.
  • Don’t force yourself to eat something and take your time.  If you can’t finish a meal, put it in the fridge and try again later.  Don’t let it sit in front of you becoming cold and unappealing.
  • Try foods you enjoy i.e. a little of what you fancy.  Maybe cooking your favourite meal or going to your favourite restaurant will help stimulate your senses and invoke your appetite.
  • Explore the reasons why you don’t want to eat something; are you avoiding food as a personal punishment? Or are anxious or nauseous at the thought of eating something?  Anti-sickness tablets are available from most chemists or ask your GP about them.  Recognising your own barriers will help you deal with them and consequently you can sort to promote the desired outcome.
  • The heartbreak diet – Sometimes people can find they lose weight after a heartbreak without realising it, even though they believe that their eating habits haven’t changed.  This is hard to explain and the cause may be different for everyone.  However it is likely the dynamics of your food intake has changed following a break up so try writing things down.  Documenting what you have eaten throughout the day may highlight to you changes in food choices, frequency or quantities.  If you are experiencing prolonged weight loss with no obvious cause, consult your GP for further advice.
  • Top up your vitamins – If your dietary intake has been poor for some considerable time, you will be at risk of being deficient in several micronutrients.  You may want to take a multivitamin to help with this.  These are available from most chemists, but consult your GP if you are on any long term medications to ensure there are no risks of adverse effects.


The information provided on this website is intended for information only and does not replace personal dietary advice provided by a dietitian.  Ask your GP about a referral to a dietitian if you would like more information or guidance to make dietary changes.

Rhiannon Britton, Registered UK dietician


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