The ‘divorce diet’ — why it works and how it makes you sick

Back in 2008, when I was 55, I found myself negotiating an unexpected divorce from my husband of 28 years. There’s almost nothing good I can say about this period of my life. I had always thought of myself as cheerful, resourceful and self-reliant, but our separation and eventual divorce uncovered dark wells of insecurity, suspicion and self-pity. It was a painful time, and I am grateful it is behind me.

The one silver lining, sort of, to all the complicated anxiety I felt about the divorce was that, without the slightest effort on my part, I dropped about 25 pounds. Tall and big-boned, I have never been overweight, but suddenly I was as slim as a smelt.  A few months earlier I had been packing myself into my size 12 wardrobe, glancing nervously toward the 14s in the L.L. Bean catalog. Now, I was slithering into a size 10 and even, for a few particularly gaunt weeks, borrowing some size 8s from a svelte friend.

“You actually have no butt at all,” remarked an observant coworker. It wasn’t a compliment.

This all happened without my bidding. I certainly wasn’t trying to lose weight; I was just getting through my days and nights, one after the next. I went to work, cleaned the house, took care of my pets, called my lawyer, called my therapist, called my financial advisor, and ranted incessantly to my friends.

Meals were the last thing on my mind. I had no appetite at all, no interest in buying, preparing or consuming food. Breakfast was black coffee and sometimes, when I remembered, a half a piece of toast. Lunch — what lunch? Supper consisted of a few crackers and a bit of cheese, with some wine to dull the sharp edge of my anxiety and ease me toward sleep. I’m not proud of any of this, and certainly not recommending it — just saying what it was.

I wish I could remember the title of the book a concerned friend put into my hands. It explained in clear language how divorce, one of the most stressful events in our lives, triggers the adrenaline-charged “fight or flight” response. This is the same hyper-vigilant endocrine surge that protects us when we are in a leopard-infested jungle or a combat zone, but it can kill us if it goes on unabated over time.

Basically, my body, fearful for its very survival, was constantly prepared for a fight to the finish or a flight to a higher tree. Food in my gut would only slow my metabolism and make my responses more sluggish, my demise more certain. Even though my conscious brain knew better, my animal instincts had seized control.

That book helped me take charge and move forward. I kind of liked being rail-thin for the first time ever, but I couldn’t afford to lose any more weight on the divorce diet. And I needed to get my anxiety under control before it made me ill.

This was the beginning of some serious self-care. I still didn’t have any interest in food, but my small meals became more structured. For breakfast, I made myself eat a whole piece of toast with a little peanut butter, and I added cream and sugar to my coffee. I also switched from high-octane coffee to a half-decaf blend, which helped ease my anxiety. At lunchtime, I’d remind myself to eat a tub of flavored yogurt or some fresh fruit.

Supper was the biggest challenge. I still couldn’t bring myself to prepare a healthy meal for one, so I would stop at the grocery store salad bar for a cup of soup and a green salad, or splurge on something from a restaurant appetizer menu. I cut back on the wine, knowing the empty calories were curbing my appetite without contributing any healthy nutrients. And anyway, alcohol is a depressant, and that was the last thing I needed.

I also started walking my dog more regularly in the evenings — usually just a stroll around the block, but it soon became part of my new routine, resetting my after-work attitude for a quiet evening at home. And I actively worked on stress management, through personal counseling, yoga classes, 12-step meetings and other activities. Over time, these small steps halted my weight loss, calmed my brain and helped me feel more in control of my body, my emotions and my life.

As time went on, my appetite returned, along with my enjoyment of meals and life in general. I navigated the shoals of the divorce and moved forward — changing jobs, relocating and eventually entering into a happy new relationship with Douglas, who is now my husband. We enjoy and appreciate the time we spend together, including exercising and eating regular, healthy meals.

Thanks in part to this all positive change, I’ve put back much of the weight I lost on the divorce diet. This new “happy weight” doesn’t bother me unduly — I’m strong and healthy, older, wiser and filled with gratitude. What’s a few extra pounds compared to all that?

Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at