Eating When Life Sucks

Hi. I’m Brenna and I’m human. Being human means that I go through all of the typical emotions and life events- even the uncomfortable ones. Do I say this because I’m an alien in disguise? Maybe, but more because people who work in mental health are sometimes believed to be so calm and collected that nothing bad ever happens. Or that when it does, we’re so zen that we make something beautiful out of the bad.


I can assure you, that that is not the case. Bad sh*t happens, and we hate it just as much as you do.

Like most people, I despised 2020. Learning how to be an eating disorder dietitian in the middle of a global pandemic, where people can’t access treatment and many people lost their jobs, was just not a fun time. I also experienced a full spectrum of life, from deaths to health scares to relationships. (And the happy stuff, like adopting hamsters, getting my own apartment, growing a strong friendship). As I scramble to see a busy client load, grieve, get angry, get sad, find an apartment, go to therapy, look professional (from the shoulders up, thanks telehealth) eating just seems like SO MUCH work. And that’s because, well, it is.


Eating isn’t just putting food into your mouth and swallowing. There’s a lot more to it.


First, you have to get up. And when your muscles ache from tension, that’s hard enough to do. And walk all the way to the fridge. You have to search through it, be mindful of your body cues and needs, get a dish- wait, stop to be mindful. *breathe*. No clean dishes. Now we don’t just have to make a meal, but clean the dishes needed as well. Which involves soap, towels, finding the sponge in the pile of dishes. Once it’s actually clean, you have to go through the logical steps of cooking. When your adrenaline is pumping, it’s very hard to organize your thoughts. So maybe the meal isn’t perfect, that’s ok, we can eat imperfectly and still be perfectly healthy.


Then there’s the act of actually eating. That good ole adrenaline also slows our digestion. Back in the olden days, if we were being chased by a saber-tooth tiger, our body was not going to waste time and energy if you got hungry. Instead, we shut down our digestion. This is where the phrase scared sh*tless comes from, to run faster we would poop and pee. And why people sometimes get “nervous stomachs”.


During times of stress, we’re in survival mode, not rest and digest mode.


Trying to push past the lump in our stomachs to eat can feel impossible. But, it’s not impossible. It’s actually quite necessary to practice self care during times of stress.


The brain runs on glucose. When we’re processing the sucky things in life, our brain is going to eat up more glucose. Tension stress also gobbles up our glucose supply. Therefore, we might find that we’re hungrier or craving more carbs. Listen to your body! Even thought you might be laying in bed crying, your brain is working double time trying to process what the **** just happened to you. Your body is tense trying to keep you safe. Your glands are creating hormones and neurochemicals to make all of these processed work as intended. All of this raises your energy needs!


Here are some ways that have worked for me, or my clients, to get fuel when life sucks:


1. Suck it Down When Life Sucks

Sometimes chewing is just too much work. Soups, smoothies, oatmeals, or even supplements can be a great way to give your body nutrients without having to stop. Obviously, this isn’t sustainable. You do need to include a variety of foods, including solids. But when you’re too sick to leave bed, keep a pack of Gatorades or Ensures by your side. Or if you’re in too much of a panic to stop and grab a meal, pick up a smoothie. These are convenient ways to fuel your body’s needs.




2. Accept food when you have to accept your feelings

Now is not the time to do it alone. It’s not the time to be bashful about letting others help. It’s not the time to prove how tough you are. Although it can be scary to admit you need help, you need it. So take your Aunt’s casserole.


People are most likely going to send you food. Accept it, just as you have to accept your emotions. It was so nice to have my friends bring me lunch, or my parents drop off some bread and cheese. Even though it didn’t seem like it would make that much of a difference, having things on hand allowed me to focus on other things.


3. Just Eat It

Part of intuitive eating is being honest about what you can capably handle. Sometimes we crave broiled salmon with toasted quinoa, and we have the time/money/mental capacity to make that. Other times...just eat it. Whatever “it” is. Maybe it’s 3 day old pizza for breakfast. Maybe it’s McDonalds. Maybe it’s Maybelline.


Ok, but don’t eat makeup. The point is, I want you to eat. Eat whatever. As a dietitian, I seriously do not care. It’s WAY healthier to eat what’s easiest, than to not eat because you don’t have the mental space to create a meal.


There’s a therapist I really like that talks about this concept as “Struggle Care” insert: (https://www.strugglecare.com/the-5-pillars-of-struggle-care) Oh and her Tik Toks? Amazingly honest and so validating.


4. Set Your Timers

Why my body is stressed, my hunger/fullness cues are one of the first things to disappear. As an intuitive eater. How do I know what to eat? This is when we use our knowledge to guide us. 3 meals, 3 snacks is a good starting place. Set timers for every 3 hours to have a glass of water and either a meal or snack, alternating. Remember that your hunger and fullness cues WILL come back. Until then, eat by the clock.


5. Call your treatment team

If you’ve been out of treatment for awhile, or are taking a break, now is when you call us to get something scheduled. We’d rather hear “I’m not sure if anythings wrong, I just want to make sure I stay on track” than “oops, I didn’t call and now I’m relapsing.”(But we’d be more happy to hear that, than something worse…) Even though it can feel silly to see a therapist/dietitian when you think you’ll be ok, this is called preventative care (insert: https://www.thebalance.com/preventive-care-how-it-lowers-aca-costs-3306074). We might not have any big breakthroughs, but we will prevent you from going down a slippery slope.


It’s been a little over a week since I started writing this, and I’m doing much better. I have my own apartment where I happily cook my meals and drink my coffee. My therapist has had so many appointments with me, I probably paid her rent this month.


I’m doing ok. And you will, too.


Best (or worst),

Brenna Topham, RDN, LD

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