The Five Stages of (Food) Grief

A guest post by Robin Strathdee, the newest Whole9 team member

This Spring, I discovered the ridiculous connection between refined sugar and seasonal allergies and, let’s be honest for a minute, it really ticked me off.  I mean, come on!  A couple of swigs of (albeit waaaay too sweet) organic strawberry lemonade and poof!  I’m ALL of the seven Spring dwarves – itchy, sneezy, scratchy, stuffy, puffy, drippy and whiny.

As I was loudly and enthusiastically complaining to my patient husband, I realized that (for me, and maybe you too) switching to a Whole9 eating style required the loss (pretty much death) of my old eating patterns.  And whenever there is a loss you encounter the five stages of grief.  Sure, I’ve joked about mourning the loss of cupcakes…maybe more than once… but I never really gave it much thought. Then, as I really contemplated it, I realized that every stage of grief was (and still is, as things adapt and change) identifiable in our lifestyle transition.

This is especially applicable to those of who have are just beginning a Whole30 program.  Switching up your eating habits, even for 30 days, takes major adjustment.  You’ll notice that every area of your life begins to change, and some changes are easier than others.  Take heart knowing that the rest of us are right there with you, no matter how many times we’ve done this.

The first stage of grief is denial – denial of the loss and isolation from usual social contacts.

I’m sure we all remember the day we stumbled across that magic piece of information, the proverbial straw, that convinced us once and for all to go full throttle into this diet-style. Chances are that the information was so novel, and so impactful, that in a single moment it trumped our old habits and made this healthier eating plan a priority. We cleared out our cupboards and cleaned out our fridges. We replaced our usual BYO work lunches of frozen Healthy Choice meals and leftover spaghetti with grilled organic pasture raised chicken and steamed broccoli with coconut oil and gluten-free soy-free tamari.

I’m willing to bet all your friends noticed the change. I’m also willing to bet that you fielded way too much, “Don’t you miss bread?” and, “I could never give up pasta!”  There were probably even a few, “All that saturated fat will give you a heart attack!” and “Eating so much meat will give you cancer.” folks in the mix. But we would hear none of that. Oh, no! We had found the light and it had overtaken the darkness of cupcakes and chocolate pudding in our hearts.  So we answered their comments with our vehement reassurances of, “Oh I wouldn’t change a thing! This is so easy. I don’t even miss my afternoon half-caff, all skim, no foam caramel macchiato with extra whip. Really! I’m fine! This is awesome!”

Eventually, though, that enthusiasm becomes hard to maintain.  As much as we have convinced ourselves that giving up all the food we’ve ever known and loved is no biggie, it’s hard to withstand the constant ogling and questioning.  It’s no fun to be the girl eating the salad with no dressing while everyone else stuffs themselves with the pasta of their choice.  And so we start to pull away a little.  Soon, we’re not going out for drinks after work and we only put in an appearance at the monthly office birthday party.  We’re looking and feeling better than ever, but we’ve distanced ourselves from all but our closest (and maybe even those) friends and family.

Next, we get angry.

I don’t know about you, but this stage was pretty intense for me. Here’s how it usually went down:

  1. Get stressed out by something. I have two preschoolers, a new business, a house, a husband, a dinosaur of a dog… pick one, any one.
  2. Convince yourself that you deserve a treat. Can you say, “coping mechanism”? I’m trying to do this less, but it’s always a hard fight.
  3. Eat something you know you shouldn’t. In the early days it was usually pizza, but now that I can’t tolerate ANY gluten (insert curse word), it’s usually candy of some sort.
  4. Have terrible, horrible reaction.
  5. Get really ticked off because all you want is to eat like a normal person for one stinkin’ day, crapdangit!

Now, for me this is kind of a rinse and repeat process with each new food group I grieve.  Cupcakes were pretty hard to let go of. The holidays were a fairly continuous cycle of the above steps. I know some people who do this as a whole, for their entire diet, and then are done. It works differently for everyone, but everyone feels the rage now and again.

Next up is bargaining. This is where we begin to compromise our standards.

Okay, so we’ve moved from complete denial through complete ticked-off-ity and now we’re ready to bargain. In my house, this bargaining took the form of compromise.  “Okay, so I know I can’t eat real donuts without serious consequences, but what about coconut flour donuts?” You Google every food you’ve lost, only adding the prefix “paleo,” and try to resurrect the ones you love in more acceptable form.

This is where the little cracks slip in and before you know it you’re having Gluten-Free Friday – everything is game-on as long as it’s gluten free (I may have done that once or twice).  You waste half your budget on mysterious flours said to have magical properties that, if combined in just the right way, cooperate to produce a slightly more glutinous reaction and some black magic juju.

This leads to three things a) bags under your eyes from late night muffin-baking sessions; 2) bags on your porch filled with the failed results of said sessions and, c) the stark realization that no matter how hard you try you will never be able to achieve the same double mondo chocolate chunk cookie you made before.

Whole30ers: Watch it with this phase. Use the food lists in your Success Guide and online to help you fight the urge to compromise on the rules.  No matter how much you want to compromise during this stage, it’s not worth bailing on your Whole30. And don’t think no one sees you standing in the kitchen late at night, sneaking a little honey into your Super Paleo Crunch Granola. You see you and the guilt will eat you alive.

And so you cry. Enter the sadness phase.

No matter how much healthier you feel eating this way, it really is sobering to know that you can’t go back to what you used to do without serious consequences – physical, mental, emotional. When everyone at work goes out for cupcakes, I can get a cup of coffee. While everyone dives into the pizza at lunch, I eat my leftover pot roast.  Sometimes it is lonely, and sometimes it is depressing.

At one point, I stopped cooking, stopped caring about food at all. I didn’t eat enough of anything, I couldn’t work out the way I had before. I didn’t even want to. My kiddos survived on grass-fed hamburgers, steamed broccoli and frozen peas. But they survived. At this point, it’s okay to cry and to actually mourn the death of your old lifestyle. Change – especially such a big lifestyle change – is not something to be undertaken lightly. In fact, I don’t trust those types who just fly through the transition. It’s not natural.  But eventually, fairly quickly actually, this phase passes and normalcy returns.

And finally, you accept and you adjust.

Once you’re done feeling sorry for yourself, you begin the phase of actually adjusting to your new lifestyle. This is where you learn what does and doesn’t work for your family and where you’re willing to make compromises (ahem…peanut butter). You learn how to become more efficient with tools like the crockpot and meal plans. And, you begin to make the connection between your ability to control what you eat and your ability to control how you feel.  This is where you feel fully comfortable in your new skin. You’re able to explain your diet decisions without too much science or shameless proselytizing. You can simply answer “yep” when someone asks if that’s a Tupperware container full whipped cream, and if you are indeed going to eat it. All.  With a spoon.  This is acceptance. This is comfortable. And this? This is good.

Robin Strathdee, our Whole9 Director of Communications, has a B.S. in Print Journalism from Missouri State University.  She has used her education and training everywhere from corporate conference rooms to her own kitchen table – where she authors the blog Confessions of a Paleolithic Drama Queen – and is currently pursuing her entrepreneurial dreams as owner of a freelance communications company.

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  1. Amanda says

    I very much relate to your article. We completed our first Whole 30 in July last year and it was BRUTAL. Not being able to drink beer or eat chips on the lake during summer is truly a little depressing. Over the last 6 months we have mingled somewhere between paleo/whole30/past eating habits. But we found that we often wished we were back on Whole 30, feeling so energetic and slim! So we went back on it this month and found our second go around much easier, and we intend to “accept and adjust” after completing this Whole 30 and find enjoyment in new items – instead of our old fixes.

    It definitely is a process broken down in stages to revert one’s eating habits.

  2. Reshma says

    Glad to hear I’m not the only one who had a separate mourning process for each beloved “old food”. Sugar was the hardest, by far….I tried to prolong that goodbye by doing “Paleo” desserts like dried fruit, but my inner sugar demon came back with a vengeance each time I ate those dried mangoes dipped in coconut oil.

  3. RIeland Rigg says

    I loved this article from start to finish. I laughed out loud. I found myself nodding frequently, and read several passages out loud to my family, who also nodded knowingly. I’m so glad to know I’m not alone! Now excuse me while I google “paleo pizza” and “paleo brownies…”

  4. Crystal says

    Loved the post, for its simple honesty and cleverness. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has a “crapdangit” moment every time I sneak a bite of something ‘previously delicious’ only to get that punch in the guts feeling.

    I’m seven months in now, though, and despite the odd poisonous substance crossing my lips in a moment of insanity, I’m well past the grief and anger etc and totally into the JOY and HAPPINESS this lifestyle is all about. Yay!

  5. Ann says

    Ah, thanks! I never thought about it this way, but a lot of truth in there. And very timely — I was just so frustrated having a conversation wtih co-workers about food…..but being the oddball is worth it. :)

  6. Casey says

    This is so helpful to read. I’ve attempted (and failed) the Whole30 quite a bit over the last month in a half, but it taught me something big about myself. I’m really addicted to sugar. I never thought you could have actual physical withdrawals quitting a food, but that’s what happened. So, I back tracked and just focused on quitting sugar. I went through this whole list you describe just doing that, including some pretty dark depression for about a week (isn’t quitting sugar supposed to help depression?!?!), but on the other side now, I feel so empowered to be able to stare down a piece of cake and win.
    Now I’m quitting wheat and going through all this all over again, but it’s different this time because now I’m facing the whole feeling of being left out because I don’t eat wheat, dairy, soy or sugar! Wheat was a powerful crutch. I can’t seem to move past the depressed feeling over it, to the point that this week my family IS eating the burgers and frozen veggies just like you mention here.
    Anyway, this is great to read right now for me. It helps to know that these feelings are normal, o.k. and will pass.

  7. Karie says

    OMG – so true and had me laughing along the way! Love the perspective and glad I’m not the only one. Being fairly new to paleo (about 6 weeks in) I think my husband and I got hung up in the bargaining step and are ready to move on.

  8. says

    Too funny. Too true. I am still eyeballing the whole 30 plan. I know it would be a good thing for me. But, in reality I’m still adjusting to gluten free life. I started that in July. I toy with being grain free, and notice that I feel better. So today I was successfully grain free. Not chocolate free though. There’s that coping thing.
    So glad you shared this though. I’m feeling in the next few weeks that I will gather the strength to do a Whole30 and this post will help. A lot.

  9. says

    Beautiful and timely. I’ve been having too many moments of weakness and keening cries for compromise this last week of the Whole30. Even though each successive iteration has meant less of a swing back into my old style of eating, it’s still hard when all I want is just. one. cupcake.

    I think the whipped cream she’s talking about is coconut milk whipped cream? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you can make a delicious cream if you take a beater to a full-fat can of coconut milk for 5-7 minutes.

  10. Elizabeth says

    Robin you are the very best! Awesome article. Please share your coconut flour doughnut receipe next time you are at the gym:)

  11. Jane says

    Excellent! Thank you so much for this. I always feel it’s a weakness to feel bad about missing food but I think I will accept my grief and just move on.

  12. says

    This was awesome! I guess I’m going through that grieving now, because I had a “cheat meal” last night and felt absolutely horrible, last night and ALL DAY today. So much so that I blogged about my ‘epiphany’. What a lovely coincidence to come over and read your post :) I feel much better now!

  13. says

    Thanks for the love, everyone! It’s SO NICE to know that: a) I’m not just a crazy with a cupcake obsession; 2) My realization has helped some of you with your own. I think we all live in a “normal” bubble where we assume that everyone else has it together.

    I look forward to sharing more of my (occasionally rational) thoughts with you all!

    PS: Elizabeth – The coconut flour donuts were awful. But I ate them anyway. I was making a point…that I had to choke down with a lot of coffee.

    PPS: Kai – yep! That’s the one. Although I’m considering giving myself an intervention on that stuff right now. Love. It.

  14. amom says

    This was great! I was never really into cupcakes but cookies have always ruled my world. All kinds, all the time, everywhere. I never knew it was an addiction until I tried to stop. I am currently in the sadness phase and I am so glad I found this because I now know that there is light at the end of this tunnel. Thank you!

  15. Deb G says

    So well written and so true! Unfortunately, some stages last longer than others (I’m still crying about my gluten-free goodies…waaahhhh!), but the gains and improvements I’ve seen and felt in my overall well-being makes giving up the processed stuff much easier.

    PS: What kind of “dinosaur dog” do you have???? I’m guessing Mastiff…

  16. Robin S. says

    Thanks Deb! I still do double takes at tge GF ginger snaps…
    We have a 2 year old Dane that weighs in at 161 lbs. When we adopted him last winter he was a sad and anxious 120 lbs, so we’ve been putting a lot of effort into him.

  17. Deb G says

    That’s so awesome Robin! My Mastiff girl, Izzy, is a rescue as well. With lots of love and patience she’s doing great. She’ll be nine in two weeks. I’m sure your boy will do just fine…you sound like a caring person. Plus he’ll be eating lots and lots of organic beef, so what’s not to be happy about! :)

  18. Alicia says

    I love this! I feel like you got inside my head and spelled out all my inner dialogue about food. And the “I deserve it” argument is so tempting – it’s impossible to convince yourself that what you really deserve is a healthy, nutritious food, not one that will mess you up. I’ve got an anxious dog we adopted from the shelter as well – sometimes they just drive you crazy, but we love him so much.

    Looking forward to your future posts!

  19. Julie says

    I am starting my Whole30 today. Never tried this before, but I don’t think it will be too hard once I get in the swing of things. As a teacher, I have to get to work by 7:30 every morning and prefer to eat breakfast there mid morning, after the morning rush is over. Any suggestions for quick, portable breakfasts? I’ve been eating a lot of hard boiled eggs and avocados, which I love, but would still like some more ideas… Also, what about banana chips? I’m not sure if they’re just dried bananas which are natually sweet, or if they are considered a sugar. Thanks! Love your information and inspiration!

  20. says

    Alicia –

    Thank you! We are so happy to have found our Cooper. And, you know, his anxiety decreased significantly when we switched him to a grain-free dog food. We’re officially a paleo household now ;0)

  21. Nicole says

    Wow, you are preaching to the choir– all of us in here eh hem, as in me myself and I. This is the first I’ve heard of Whole9. I did a goole search on grieving through sugar because I’ve been off sugar for 7 weeks now and your article was really helpful. I’ve found myself in all the stages you’ve mentioned but everytime I cycle through a minor cheat, I come back to a better routine. Unfortunately now that sugar isn’t masking all my issues, for the first time in my life I am having to learn how to process my emotions and they seem deeper and more palpable than ever. When something hurts now, it hurts deep and I cry hard. (sigh) Maybe that’s how everyone who isn’t an addict of one kind or another feels all their life when they experience hurtful life experiences– maybe that’s why I wasn’t able to be compassionate because I never really felt pain so I couldn’t identify as deeply.

  22. says

    Nicole –

    I’m so glad to hear that this helped with a part of the process you’re in. I come from a similar perspective to yours and learning to actually process my emotions (the REAL ones, not just the surface feelings) was a really difficult lesson. Congratulations on taking the steps to a better and healthier you!

  23. says

    Thank you, Robin. I have been at this since 2009…but I needed to hear this today. I think, for me, it’s been cyclic. Sometimes I’m OK, and sometimes I feel sad or angry … or I bargain, (or I cheat). It’s helpful to have an objective look at it.

  24. Juni says

    Robin-what a great article!
    I just totally had a Paleo Pouting session—was so pooped last night that I went to bed early without packing today’s lunch. Usually the beginning of bad equals waiting too long to eat and then BAM, I’m trying to justify why eating a whole pack of unsulphered/unsweetened dried mangoes is totally an acceptable lunch (I’ll just add a few hard boiled eggs)….I then decided to experiment with greek yogurt—I USED to love it and “tolerate it” or so I thought. Ugh, nope. The Ghee has been ok, but I guess that’s going to be it for me and dairy. Not the end of the world I guess, Ghee rocks my world.
    Anyway, to stop my rambling, this article really rang true as I feel I am going through this now and it’s been causing some pouting, sadness, frustration and maybe even some intentional self sabotage EEK!
    Nice to know that it gets easier with time…if only by accepting and adjusting one’s life to being a bit of an outsider. Is that worse than going with the flow and feeling like poop? I think not. :)

  25. Stacey says

    I am having a “crapdangit” kind of a day. I am on Day 8. The last 8 days have been amazing, even though 2 of those days were the weekend, which are always my worst eating days. I made it through, no withdrawls, no “woe is me” attitude or feelings. But the pity party has started today. All I want is my flipping flavored coffee creamer! Coconut milk is not cutting it, especially without any sweetner! And if I see another egg…..
    I am at the crying stage now. :)

  26. says

    I cussed at food in a restaurant the other day. I was there with a friend and she got this crazy appetizer with big pretzel breads that looked SO good. She offered and I tore off a piece and said, “F you, I’m eating you right. NOW” and I did.

    … and it tasted like crap.

    I was so sad.

    Funny enough, I find that now I get sad (just for a moment) any time I decide to “cheat” and eat something that used to be one of my favorites but now just tastes like a chemical-coated sponge.

  27. Nicole says

    Thank you *so much* for this post. Seriously, I related to everything you said. It’s weird how much of our lives revolve around food and how much we picture scenarios with food involved. It’s hard! When everyone wants to go out for pancakes after a night out or just order a pizza and watch a movie on Friday you feel left out. It feels unjust. It’s all the things above that you mentioned and I know I’m going to have very tough time dealing with it. I did in the past before I even attempted a Whole30.

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one and I really appreciate your candidness. I’ll be reading this article a lot in the future.

  28. CJ says

    Am I the only one who read this and found this disturbing, from an eating disorder point of view? Is accomplishing 30 “clean” days of eating really worth this if you have no medical condition to warrant it?

  29. says

    CJ –

    I appreciate your feedback. This post was in no way a reference to any kind of eating disorder or to disordered behaviors. It was simply a humorous look at the feelings some of us (especially those of us who DO have a medical condition that necessitates making these big changes and allows for little compromise in some areas – myself included) have, despite knowing that the changes we’re making are making us healthier.

  30. CJ says

    Thanks for the reply. Im glad to hear it was supposed to be more of a satirical article (I hope) as the behaviour you described is very typically of eating disorder behaviour and isnt healthy at all.

  31. says

    I did the Whole 30 back in January and so true! I realized that eating was no longer “fun.” I had sex with my pants on once or twice and overdosed on dried fruit. Anyhow, I realized that I was not ready for such a commitment long-term but I think I’m getting closer. Thanks for the article. It reminds me that this is a process. – Kris

  32. DeAnne Luck says

    I also appreciate this article, and I’ve been off/on paleo for 2+ years! I still struggle with the social situations and anger over not being able to just eat what everybody else has. Just yesterday I had lunch out with co-workers, a work reception, and a baby shower, on top of all the cookies/muffins almost always in the break room. That much eye aversion and resistance is exhausting! It seems like not a day can go by without plates of junk appearing right in front of me, and that’s on top of the fact that there is a Starbucks in my building, 40 feet away from my office. Argh! Anyone out there relate?

  33. Jill says

    Well written and oh so timely. I completed my whole30 in sept and immediately conceived. All I wanted after that was bread. Now I’m in my last trimester and moving back to a mostly whole30 lifestyle. This time I am helping my husband with his nutrition and he is in the ANGRY stage! It was good to read this so I can be more supportive of his grumpy attitude about letting certain food go.