01/07/2013 02:13 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2013

A Nutritionist's Challenge to Eat Well Post-Separation


Eating well can be challenging for the average, busy, multi-tasking person. But eating healthily in the days following a separation? Nearly impossible. I learned this first-hand when I went through my own divorce a few years ago but I had a conundrum that few others need to navigate: I am a nutritionist.

Eating healthy, whole foods is not only something I am passionate about in regards to my overall health and longevity, but in a more immediate sense, it is something I do because it makes me feel good every single day. I have seen over and over how simple nutritional shifts can lead to amazing changes in the way you look, feel and operate in life. To me, there is no better prescription to an incredible life than a solid diet.

Yet there I was in the days after the separation, barely eating, drinking more wine than is recommended and trying to sustain my energy and my self-esteem through the meager foods that I could actually bring myself to eat.

Anyone that has been separated or divorced will tell you that it is a brutally difficult time. Life as you had known it is now altered forever. The dream of happily-ever-after? A cruel fairy tale of what might have been. Add to that the logistical aspect of separation such as where to live, how to separate assets, getting lawyers and you can begin to see how eating anything might be a challenge in itself, and how tempting it might be -- when you actually feel like you can eat -- to down pints of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, desperate for quick relief.

As much as I wanted to revert to my pre-nutritionist days and eat whatever I felt like, I didn't have that luxury. I had to show up every day and look well in order to set an example for the clients whom I loved and whose goal of achieving optimal health was as important to me as it was to them.

The problem was, I didn't have the wherewithal to prepare myself food nor did I have the gumption to go out and buy food. I just didn't care.

Mercifully, I have a mother who did.

After years of hearing me talk about the best foods to eat to offset depression and alleviate anxiety, my mother, desperate to do something to blot out my suffering, did the only thing a Cuban-Jew can do: she made me food. And rather than making me what she thought would soothe me, she made me food that nourished me. Remembering that I had talked about the mood-enhancing properties of cashews, she made me a cashew-miso sauce that I tossed with brown rice pasta and which became my salvation. She also brought over carrot soup, remembering how I had told her that root vegetables help to alleviate anxiety by making us feel more grounded. For quick snacks at work, she made me a delicious hummus, mindfully adding extra tahini in the hopes that the calcium it contained would help calm me down. It was more food than I could even fathom eating at the time, but her show of love -- coupled with the realization that she was actually paying attention to the advice I so often peddled to others --broke my heart open. I began to feel nourished even before I tasted a bite of any of it.

Day in and day out, I sustained myself on my mother's offerings, particularly the brown rice pasta with cashew sauce. That and grapes. Well, actually, grapes that were crushed, fermented and turned into wine, and in the quantities I was downing it, I am fairly certain I got enough resveretrol into my system to offset any potential damage. At least to my cardiovascular system. My liver, on the other hand, wouldn't agree. At the time my heart was broken, so wouldn't a cardiac antioxidant be useful? And doesn't the liver regenerate itself anyway?

My mother didn't know it, but when she chose to make me the cashew sauce she was actively contributing to my peace and wellbeing. An excellent source of the amino acid Tryptophan, the cashews were slowly but consistently helping to boost my serotonin levels that had been scurrying along the floor since my husband moved out. If you consider that a single negative thought can deplete serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for happiness and wellbeing, then you can imagine what was happening with my brain chemistry in the days and weeks after the initial separation. My serotonin barely registered. I was all dopamine and adrenaline -- anxious, sleepless, irritable, crying and lamenting the loss of my life with the wild-eyed look of a deer caught in the headlights. That cashew sauce was slowly delivering nutrients that were helping me to move along and take the next step, which was often hard to take.

Food has the power to heal us or hurt us, depending on the choices we make. I see this fact every day in my practice, and experienced it first hand during the most difficult days of my life. Eating the nourishing foods my mother prepared for me made the days and weeks after the initial shock feel a little less like a Tsunami and instead, more like a nasty storm. Had I chosen to stuff my feelings with ice cream and pizza, not only would I have lost my ability to do a credible job with my clients, but I also would have had a far more difficult time climbing out of the emotional hole the separation created. While I felt scared and sad and cried until there was nothing left, I got up every day and went to work. By continuing to eat mindfully, I was able to both perform at work and navigate the emotional upheaval that was happening in my relationship with something that resembled equanimity. Though I was consumed by the personal challenges that I was now faced with, I was also able to have compassion for the challenges my ex was also facing. That might be hard to believe, but it's true. In staying as grounded as possible, I was able to see all things more clearly, including his pain and suffering, which in ways, equaled my own. Because of this, our eventual divorce required no more than a mediator and goodwill towards the person that I once loved as a husband and came to regard as a friend. In the end, staying balanced and steady allowed me to control my fear and fury and operate from a place of grounded focus and civility -- so we both won in the end. We didn't waste all our savings on lawyers and we didn't become hardened and embittered by the experience. This allowed us to each move ahead positively and compassionately to a life that made each of us separately happy.

Eating well at any stage of life is a wise choice for a multitude of reasons, as the benefits of eating wisely can improve your energy level, help you maintain your health as well as improve your focus and concentration. But in those moments where life feels fragile and difficult, what you eat can make all the difference between handling things with grace or falling apart. It certainly did for me.