Dietary Changes and the Five Stages of Grief (Part 1)
If you are affected by a chronic health problem, sooner or later you are probably going to need to make some fairly major, permanent changes to your diet and lifestyle in order to improve your condition. Reading around nutrition books and blogs, you may get the impression that with a bit of grocery and kitchen organising, this should be a quick and easy process. Tales abound of people drastically changing their lifestyles overnight and turning their health around as a result. However, people tend not to write about the emotional impact of making such changes, leaving us to conclude that any setbacks they experience are due to lack of knowledge rather than lack of willpower.
In reality, making significant and lasting changes to eating habits can be difficult, because for most of us, eating is not something we do simply to obtain nourishment. We eat for pleasure, we eat to socialise, we eat things because they taste nice. However, the foods we are unable to tolerate are very often the same foods we most crave, so while eliminating them on a short term basis may be quite easy, the prospect of resisting them long term – perhaps permanently – can be very daunting. This means that many of us, even upon experiencing clear negative consequences of eating certain foods, continue to eat them more often than we should for far longer than we should, which can lead to lots of self-recrimination, especially if we believe that top nutritionists and all our favourite bloggers never fall off the proverbial wagon.
In future blogs I am going to be talking a lot about nutritional approaches to managing chronic health conditions, so I first wanted to examine some of the stages a person might go through in moving from a typical Western diet and lifestyle over to a more nourishing way of life. Essentially, such a transition normally involves overcoming one or more food addictions, which while usually less serious than other addictions involves many of the same thought and behaviour patterns. I realised about three years ago that many of the things I thought and did when deviating from the diet I knew I should be eating were really no different to the things drug users think and do around the times they relapse. I also realised I could clearly identify four of the five stages of grief in my own food journey.
Somehow, acknowledging that I had food addictions and understanding that there was a real grieving process involved in making drastic changes to my life helped me to move into the final stage of grief – acceptance. Within weeks of this epiphany I was able to accept that going back to my old life was never going to be possible if I wanted to remain healthy. Far from being a sad time, I was finally able to approach my new life with the enthusiasm and commitment it deserved. Although I do still occasionally relapse and make silly food choices, this is now a much rarer occurrence and when I do, it only highlights to me how much I love my new lifestyle and the good health it allows me to experience.
This is the stage where, knowing changes to our diet and lifestyle may be prudent, we delay actually doing anything about it and instead justify to ourselves all the reasons why it’s okay for us to carry on exactly as we are. If we know we eat too much sugar, we’ll think of someone who eats more sugar than us and tell ourselves that by comparison we’re very heathy. If we know we’re relying too heavily on alcohol to get us through the working week, we’ll compare ourselves to a workmate who drinks a whole bottle of wine on a nightly basis. We’ll congratulate ourselves on eating our five a day, but will minimise the impact that our additional elevenses, afternoon cake, afternoon latte, glass of wine with dinner and chocolate bar in front of the TV may be having on our body. And because most of us don’t actually know anyone in real life who eats particularly well, it’s all too easy to convince ourselves that: a) we’re living a much more saintly existence than we are; b) eating too well causes people to become neurotic and develop a load of ‘disorders’ they didn’t have before; and c) nobody ‘normal’ actually eats like a nutritionist or a health blogger – they are just oddballs and probably exaggerate how healthy a life they lead anyway.
The fact really is that we often just don’t WANT to make any changes, not even for the sake of our health, because it is – initially at least – less tasty, plus we might experience cravings and withdrawals. We can’t really imagine that life will be worth living if we need to eliminate that, so we find a multitude of excuses to not bother trying. Perhaps on some level we fear that if we do give a better way of life a chance and our health does improve as a result, we will be committed for all eternity.
It is perfectly natural and valid to experience denial around food issues, but admitting to ourselves that we are caught in a cycle of making excuses and minimising our bad habits is actually very empowering. It means that even if we are not ready to make changes now, we can take responsibility for our decision to continue as we are. In the case of chronic health problems, which can often leave us feeling powerless, the simple acknowledgment that there might be things we can try when we feel mentally strong enough can be enormously comforting. Once we learn that diet and lifestyle may be factors in our health concerns, we have a CHOICE about how to proceed and eventually we may feel ready to try new approaches in managing our conditions.
This phase normally occurs when the changes we have made to our diet and lifestyle lose their novelty and we start to feel deprived or constrained. On the one hand if we stick devoutly to our new regime, we can feel a lot of resentment about the willpower and effort that this initially takes, even if our symptoms improve quickly. If our symptoms are slower to respond, perhaps because we haven’t found quite the regime that suits us yet, it can be even more maddening to deal with withdrawal symptoms and life changes while still experiencing some illness. On the other hand, if we don’t stick to the regime as strictly, or if we give ourselves ‘treats’ and then subsequently notice a worsening of symptoms, we may feel a lot of anger towards ourselves for being weak or stupid.
For example, if I eat grains, potato or dairy products, my tummy becomes bloated within the hour and I feel very uncomfortable. My blood sugar levels also fluctuate, leaving me feeling nauseous and anxious, often with digestive issues and extreme mood swings the next day. However, I am human. Although I find it very easy to stick to my regime at home, if I am eating out I sometimes want to taste things that I know I shouldn’t and sometimes the taste turns into more of a proper eat. I try not to let this happen and as the years have passed such incidences have occurred much less often, but they sometimes still do. When they do, I get very angry at myself for allowing a few moments of pleasure to cause damage to my body and a couple of days of discomfort.
The anger that we experience about needing to be on a particular regime does eventually die down. While initially it may feel very unjust that we have to avoid certain foods, or make more effort with our cooking, or take expensive supplements and medications, in time the pleasure at feeling better far outweighs the deprivation and inconvenience. I used to feel very envious of people who can eat what they like and felt angry that people who took so little care of their bodies appeared to enjoy better health than me. However, I have come to enjoy taking care of myself and I often feel quite sorry now for people who don’t do the same.
We never truly know other people’s stories, so while you may look around restaurants and coffee shops and feel anger that everyone else is eating what they like and you can’t, you just don’t know if that is the case. Perhaps in 20 years he’ll have a heart attack. Perhaps she gets colds and tummy bugs all the time. Perhaps they’ll get diabetes, or maybe they don’t sleep well, or possibly they just really are genetically blessed and can do whatever they like. The point is it’s none of your business. They have their own issues and their own stories and you don’t know. Eventually you’ll get bored of feeling hard done to about all the things you can’t do and you’ll start to appreciate all the things you can do and the sense of injustice will pass. As for that other type of anger, the one that happens when you do silly things and make yourself feel bad? Well, that will probably stay with you, but each time you do it you will learn from the experience and use it to be even healthier for even longer next time.
As this turned out to be an incredibly long blog post, I’ve uploaded it in two parts for a more manageable read! Join me in Part Two where I discuss bargaining, depression and acceptance and also share more of my own experiences.
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