The Biological Reason It's Hard To Eat When Your Heart Is Broken

It's not just depression, it's not just sadness; it's deeper and even more physiological.

Last updated on Apr 20, 2024

Woman sitting on her kitchen counter, surrounded by food but not hungry yacobchuk | Canva

There's no doubt about it. Breakups can shake us to our core. Although we all deal with them differently, like developing depression after a breakup or making self-destructive decisions, many people have experienced the phenomenon of a loss of appetite after a breakup.

What causes loss of appetite, and why is heartbreak responsible for us losing interest in food? We sat down with YourTango experts Marina Pearson and Debra Smouse to find out why a loss of love causes a loss of appetite. For starters, Pearson points out, "Considering body and mind are connected, it makes sense if you are upset, your body will be affected."


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She explains what happens on a chemical level when we think stressful thoughts: "The first thing the body does is to create more adrenaline, which flows into the body; this increases our cortisol levels. Pearson continues to say that too much cortisol in our bodies "on an ongoing basis causes the following to happen":

  • sustained elevations of blood sugar
  • substantial loss of calcium from bones
  • depression of important immune responses
  • high blood pressure
  • loss of muscle
  • increased fat growth
  • loss of cognitive function

"In short, it affects our immune system, and as our immune system is in the gut, is there any wonder that your appetite is affected by a breakup?" she asks.


feeling closed off when breaking upPhoto: fizkes via Shutterstock

"There are physical reactions we often have to food when dealing with breakup pains. Although some people turn to comfort food like cupcakes, wine, and ice cream, many others feel ill when attempting to eat. "It's as if there is a connection between our stomachs and our hearts, and any food crossing our lips sends us into physical pain. We're unable to swallow. We force ourselves to eat something, and it immediately comes back up. Though we aren't quite ready to feel healing and hope, we don't desire to feel any more pain, so we abstain from eating," says Debra Smouse.

When our hearts are hurting, according to Pearson, it is logical that our bodies are, as well. "The body can only ever be in two states: either in a state of repair or a state of repose. If heartbreak is affecting you negatively, then your body will be in a state of repair," she explains. "If it's constantly in a state of repair your appetite will be affected, as your body will be working over time."




"My client Ann became almost skeletal after her divorce. Her doctor urged her to make healthier choices, but she was conflicted. She was convinced her husband had an affair because the other woman was 'skinny', so what began as a reaction to the anxiety of the breakup eventually became her way to prove to her ex she could be thin, and therefore desirable. One of the best ways to recover from a breakup is by taking care of yourself emotionally and physically. Starving yourself isn't taking care of yourself," Debra Smouse told us. 

So how can we move forward and engage in healthier behaviors toward food when we're reeling from a breakup? Pearson suggests keeping your detrimental daydreaming to a minimum.

"Terrifying thoughts about your breakup or ex may look real to you at the moment, but they are not — just like when you go to the movies and see the wonderful special effects, you know that the actors are not acting on the screen at that moment. The same is true of our thoughts department. Thoughts are the special effects department of our minds, and even though they may look real, they are not."


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Once you accept that your emotional and mental demons can be conquered, indulge in some self-care. "First of all, allow yourself to feel everything. While numbing seems like a good solution, the longer you put off processing your feelings, the longer it’s going to take to recover," she says. "Remember that a breakup involves grieving the loss of the relationship, as well as the idea of what the relationship represented." Debra Smouse

Pearson says, "Of course for others, eating can be a consolation for what has happened. I have also known quite a few of my clients who experienced increased appetite. Once again, this comes from misunderstandings:

  1. The idea that food can heal your heartbreak is not true
  2. That using food to avoid the present moment is a healthy behavior

Eating in excess is just another way to avoid reality. If you are focusing on eating and not on your thoughts, it would stand to reason you will feel better." To this note, you to define yourself and what food means to you. "Get clear about the role food plays in your life. Is it a reward? A part of a celebration? Is it sustenance or emotion? By finding clarity about the role food plays in your world, you can better approach how to handle food challenges during this tender time," Debra Smouse

To heal and find interest in food again, Pearson urges the heartbroken to change their thought process before their habits:"Escaping how you feel about your breakup will only re-create your pattern of negative thinking and keep you mired in misunderstanding. However, if you can see that it's your thoughts creating the feelings and behaviors, then your appetite will not be affected."

she has a solo picnicPhoto: JulioRV via Shutterstock


But you also have to do some active work, too. "Reach out to others in your support structure. Now may be the time to schedule lunch dates with a good girlfriend. She will help you laugh and be with you while you cry. It's a great time to hire a coach or a therapist to help you gain support and figure out your next step." And, in case you think that avoiding a real healing process is the best way to deal with pain, here's a reality check: "There is no such thing as selective numbing. By numbing the painful stuff, you're also numbing the good stuff," according to Debra Smouse.

So what are the takeaways for those starving for breakup relief and a return to normalcy? Here's Pearson's take: "As your stressful thinking affects your body, you will notice that you're suppressing your appetite. However, the opposite is also true: you may also look to avoid your discomfort with food. Look in the direction of your feelings coming from your thoughts, and your appetite will start to correct itself of its own accord."



"The final reminder I want to leave you with is that now is the time to figure out what you want. Ask yourself: if you had a weekend to do anything you wanted, what activities would you choose? If you could visit some places in your area, like theaters, museums, or restaurants, what would you choose? If you could choose a perfect meal, what would you eat? Ann eventually found her way back to herself with this process: feeling, awareness, and support while she figured out what she needed to create a life she loved. You will too." — Debra Smouse


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Estee Kahn is a writer, amateur photographer, and contributor to YourTango. Her bylines have also appeared on Huffington Post and Yahoo, where she writes about dating, relationships, friendship, and self-esteem.