One of my best friends (let's call her Lisa) is going through a divorce, and I, despite having no knowledge of what she is going through, am trying to stand by her to help her through this difficult time. I am not alone in that role. We all have a Lisa or a Larry whose hand we are holding (or held) during the dissolving of a marriage and chances are, most of us struggle with what we can do to actually help. Throughout my discussions with my friend, however, I realized that above and beyond the psychological hardship she was going through was an additional hardship to her health. Once a healthy eater and marathon runner, she had now acquired a late-night chip habit, was skipping breakfast, turning to sweets to cope for times when she felt the most depressed and even though she was not overdoing it on her alcohol consumption, she found herself having a drink a few nights a week after work -- something she never did during her married days. So one day, in the midst of a helpless moment, I said, "tell me what I can do to make life easier for you," and her reply was adamant, "I need to turn around my diet; can you help me?" So began weeks of pantry and fridge clean ups, transitioning to foods that kept her emotions up and her weight down; and an educational format that showed Lisa how healthy foods would help her get through some of the physical and mental challenges she was experiencing. It was essentially a "divorce diet." After 12 weeks, her attitude, energy and general outlook on her future improved. In no way am I suggesting that diet alone cured all that ailed her, but in Lisa's world at least, she told me my divorce diet was saving her health and ultimately, helped her to recognize the incredible life she still had before her.
Our emotions can dictate a large part of our diet. A bad day at work, a fight with a friend, or even just a long commute home in heavy traffic can cause a relatively healthy person to start dreaming about that glass of chardonnay, the cookie, or the pizza that awaits them at home or the French fries they'll pick up at the next intersection. They are never dreaming about that big bowl of steamed broccoli, that refreshing glass or cucumber water or the seaweed snacks that are stashed in the pantry. These scenarios are acute, as opposed to chronic however, so when faced with stress day in and day out, as is commonly the case while going through a divorce, the reliance on these unhealthy foods can take a toll.
First, it's important to recognize that the "feel good" foods you're chomping on won't make you feel any better; they'll actually make you feel worse. Our sugar addictions are out of control and are often coupled with or into foods that are chock full of refined carbohydrates as well (think French fries, pizza and doughnuts). Turning to them in a time of stress may not be the straw that breaks the camel's back, but turn to them every night to soothe your pain and it will be hard to ever turn away. The sad truth is that they may make your sadness worse. Researchers at the University of Finland found that consumption of sugary processed foods can actually elevate depression. Further, a 2014 study found that stressed individuals that indulged in alcohol or sweets to calm them actually experienced a reduced pleasure from the food of choice. Authors showed that although the desire for a reward (in this case, food or alcohol) was increased for stressed individuals, their pleasure they obtained from it was decreased. And then there's the very important reality about the effects on our physical health. The sugar high you feel is always accompanied by a low, and eventually, with constant consumption, your health can decline and your life can be shortened. So if you keep up with the candy, cookies and stripped of fiber crackers, your physical health will hitch a ride with your mood and both will follow a road that leads to nowhere.
Now what you know what not to have, here are eight diet-related truths and tips to get you to get you out of the divorcee rabbit hole more vibrant, energized and healthy than when you crawled in.
Go ahead, have chocolate, just not too much
While chocolate (the dark kind) is known to have a whole host of heart benefits, it's the stress reduction wow factor that will help you during this time in your life. A 2009 study as well as a 2012 study suggested that moderate chocolate consumption could actually help ease stress. The key word here is moderate; if you want to have an ounce of chocolate a day as a treat, go for it, just don't have the whole bar in a moment of weakness.
Become a salmon "addict"
Several studies have linked deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids to depression and several more studies show that having omega-3 fatty acids in your diet may even help to ward of depression. Further, adding vitamin D into the mix may also assist in decreasing depressive symptoms as well. Guess what food has both omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D? Three servings a day of wild salmon will be a great start to a healthy plan.
Don't fear fat, just fear the type
Fat gets a bad wrap, but most fats will help you when you when you're looking for something to make you satisfied and full. Both olive oil and the oils from pine nuts have been shown to help keep you fuller, longer. So when you find yourself looking for something to crunch on that makes you feel happy, why not try some popcorn (see my next tip) with a little drizzled oil and sea salt added instead of potato chips or a tub of frosting? The fat in the latter foods may increase your risk for heart disease and stroke and may even increase depression.
When you feel the need to just veg out on the couch, choose popcorn as the snack of choice
Next to coffee, arugula and eggs, popcorn is one of my most favorite foods. It's crunchy, it can be salty or slightly sweet and you can have lots of it for not a lot of calories. That's key for any man or woman struggling to keep weight down during stressful times (and struggling to limit those late night snack attacks). A great source of whole grains, popcorn provides you the antioxidants you need to boost immunity (stress can weaken immune systems in both parents and children) at a measly 31 calories a cup.
Whey your breakfast options
One major change I made to Lisa's diet included having a high-protein shake for breakfast. Lisa called this addition a "game changer" to her former eating habits as it kept her full for a big chunk of the day and made her more resistant to cravings later in the day. A small 2013 study found that having higher amounts of protein for breakfast helped to regulate signals that controlled food regulation, and made participants more resistant to snacking on junk food later in the day. I also suggested that Lisa look for a protein powder that incorporated Whey. One study showed that consumption of whey protein (a major protein found in milk) increased serotonin (a feel-good hormone first isolated at the Cleveland Clinic that is associated with mood elevation).
Envisioning a happy future may make it easier to eat healthier
A 2014 study found that individuals that literally envisioned a happy future actually ate better. So while you're eating your "happy" foods, it couldn't hurt to think of that happy future too!
Make exercise and adequate sleep non-negotiable components to your day
As tempting as it is to lie around, you have to get off the couch (and don't watch cooking shows, they may make your diet worse). Exercise increases feel good hormones, boosts self esteem and keeps excess pounds off. Further, without getting enough Zzzs at night, all your "get healthy" plans will become more difficult to achieve. Sleep enhancers include cherries and fatty fish, sleep disrupters include that nightly glass of wine.
If you need further motivation to clean your diet, think about your children.
Finally, as I am learning through Lisa, divorce effects family members in different ways and new evidence implies a connection between mom or dad's eating habits and the diet of the kids. A 2015 study in the Journal Childhood Obesity found that children of recently separated or divorced families were much more likely to drink sugar sweetened beverages than children whose parents were married. This bad habit sets up these children for obesity and its related chronic conditions (diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, etc.) later in life. Another point brought out by the authors of this study is that changing routines due to a divorce in the family are common. Keeping a set time when mom or dad has a meal with the kids, even if it's just a few times a week is critical and can help to ward off obesity and keep healthy eating habits intact.
Lisa's divorce dietary plan isn't the only thing that is getting her past a difficult time. But she's back to exercising, she's eating well, and she finally feels that tomorrow might not be so bad. These suggestions won't change your life, but they may help to make you stronger, both physically and mentally.