When my mother went through a divorce at age 70, she was too upset to think about food, reeling from the shock of her 35-year marriage ending. She’d never been one to eat for solace (unlike me), and she hadn’t really enjoyed cooking in the years, not since the 1970s, when she embraced culinary incompetence as a sign of women’s liberation.
After the divorce, she no longer had a husband eager to go out to eat. She couldn't get excited about eating at home, or out. She began to lose weight, which she enjoyed at first. But when she dropped below 100 pounds, she got worried. “I noticed I was losing weight, and it actually made me feel kind of good,” she said. “But then, when none of my jeans fit, it felt a little scary.”
My mom’s experience with dramatic weight loss in divorce is not unusual. I spoke to one woman in the Midwest who dropped 40 pounds in three months. Like my mom, she was happy to lose a little weight, at first, but then began to feel that her body was out of control, and to worry about the implications to her health.
In divorce, some people continue eating normally, but still lose weight due to stress. More often though, people lose too much weight in divorce because the stress or depression or anger interrupts the hunger signal, says certified clinical nutritionist Inna Topiler, owner of Complete Nutrition and Wellness in Hoboken, New Jersey, They don’t feel hungry, so they don’t eat. "Or the thought of food nauseates them. But you’re starving your body,” says Topiler. “It’s like not putting gas in your car. It’s going to stall." Running on fumes saps your energy, makes it hard to think clearly, can dampen your mood, and interrupt your sleep.
Pretty much everyone has some sort of physical problem in the throes of divorce, from sleepless nights to anxiety to losing too much weight. These kinds of ailments tend to be short-lived, and many people feel far healthier once they are no longer burdened by a non-functioning marriage. But in the midst of it, many of us need to take extra steps to combat the physical symptoms of divorce—including unwanted weight loss, for some.
If you are losing too much weight, here are five easy ways to stay healthy—and hopefully put on some pounds.
1. Shake (or suck) it up.
If the thought of a steak or pasta dish makes you nauseous, consider a simple protein shake. You can easily make a shake of your favorite fruit, milk or almond milk and protein powder. “You can’t force yourself to scarf down food, but at least you’re getting something that’s nutritious and balanced and will give you energy for the day,” says Toiler. “It doesn’t have to be in the morning, but if you’re not eating all day, having it earlier in the day for energy would be helpful, and better than nothing. You could even have two or three protein shakes.” Topiler recommends buying a protein powder without added sugar and made with natural flavor, like vanilla or cocoa. Any protein powder from Whole Foods or a health food store should be good.
You can also squeeze in your calories by sucking on a nut butter packet. “It’s 200 calories, and it’s delicious. Ideally, you put it on toast or a rice cake, but if you’re not hungry and you feel like you don’t want to eat anything, this is one way of getting really good calories without feeling like you’re putting so much in your body,” says Topiler.
2. Make social plans around food.
Even if it seems like the last thing you want to do, make your social plans include a meal. Because eating is a social act, you may find yourself finishing everything on your plate before you realize it. We've all done this—we're at a Mexican restaurant, talking about a horrible day, or some great date, chomping our way through a basket of tortilla chips. We finish the bowl and hail the waiter for more before our entree even arrives. (Is this just me?) The social aspect of eating is the same reason diet gurus advise not joining your friends for dinner when you're trying to lose weight.
3. Try for one meal.
If you’re not eating enough, challenge yourself to eat just one meal a day. If you’re already managing one, try for two. Ideally, you have three meals and one or two snacks, but it's fine to start slow. Your one meal should be balanced, meaning it has a protein such as chicken or fish or beef or tofu, along with a fat, such as olive oil, a good carbohydrate and ideally a vegetable. “You don’t want your one meal to be a big bowl of white pasta,” says Topiler.
4. Remember your vitamins.
Vitamins don't replace food, but a good quality multivitamin can help you stay healthy if you’re not eating well, says Topiler, who advises a multivitamin with food-based, natural ingredients rather than synthetic ones. “The good quality vitamins you can take on an empty stomach and not get a stomach ache.” Not sure what kind to get? Don’t worry about choosing the “right” vitamin for your age; the idea of life-stage-based vitamins is a more marketing strategy than food science, says Toiler. Any food-based multivitamin from a nutritionist or a health food store will work.
5. See a nutritionist.
A clinical nutritionist does different tests than most general practitioners, diagnoses things like "adrenal fatigue," and prescribes vitamins and herbs. A nutritionist also takes a close look at what you're eating, and how you're feeling—even if you're not officially "sick." When looking for a nutritionist, try to find one who takes a “whole body” perspective and can both test for adrenal fatigue or other problems as well as help you create an eating plan that will work. To find a good nutritionist, ask around. If you know someone who has gone to a nutritionist for a specific problem and been happy with the results, that’s a good place to start. Look for someone who is certified by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (CBNS.org). You can also look for a nutrition specialist on the the Institute for Functional Medicine’s “Find a practitioner” tab.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.