Disordered Eating and Digestive Symptoms

It’s super common for me to work with individuals with digestive issues.  Some may just have a bit of reflux, gas, pain or bloating they find uncomfortable and annoying, while others come with diagnosed Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or some sort of inflammatory bowel disorder like Celiac Disease, Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis.  Because of the clientele I typically work with, the majority come knowing they have some (or a lot) of disordered eating behaviors as well.

In order to give my clients the best care possible, I need to help them understand the association between what they eat and how they feel (digestive issues or otherwise).  However, I also want you to be aware of the line between where effective nutrition interventions end and where food anxiety, preoccupation and unnecessary restrictions begin.  "Healing the gut" is a very popular trend right now, and while I'm not saying it isn't an appropriate goal for some, it can also be a slippery slope into disordered eating for others.  There are SO many diets that are geared toward improving digestive function, and it's easy to jump from one to another when one doesn't work, or isn't as effective as you hope. 

Nutrition is HIGHLY individualized and it’s not realistic to expect that a certain list of dietary rules will apply to everyone.  I find that too many people feel they have to be PERFECT following the diet rules (GAPS, SCD, Paleo, etc) in order to heal, since that's the premise behind the diets’ theories.  If you buy into that, when you don’t follow the diet perfectly you not only experience guilt and frustration, but also paralyzing fear that you will never heal.  You become dependent on the diet and all it’s faulty promises like an abusive boyfriend (or girlfriend) which you are too afraid to leave. 

In addition, disordered eating behaviors themselves can cause digestive issues.  It’s super easy to blame the food rather than your beliefs and behaviors around the food.  I can totally attest to how easy it is to be blinded by the idea that your physical symptoms are caused by a lack of discipline with food, or inability to perfectly avoid dairy, sugar, gluten, grains or any number of new dietary villains. Instead, it’s very likely that the restriction/chaos cycle, under eating/overeating, lack of variety, balance and moderation are really the culprits.  At what point does nutrition information/rules cause psychosomatic symptoms?  I think it’s earlier than many realize. 

Given that your digestive rhythm and regularity is largely influenced by your eating rhythm and regularity, if you’re eating habits are haphazard, digestion can become haphazard too.  In fact, when eating patterns are unreliable, digestion tends to slow down so as to suck every last bit of nutrition it can out of whatever food it will get.  Malnourishment can cause digestive adaptations which means you will probably have to push through some discomfort before your digestion normalizes in response to regular, consistent, adequate and balanced meals/snacks.

I would like to encourage you to base your food choices on YOUR experience with food rather than a list of rules that may or may not apply to you.  Overall food patterns can support wellness, without being overly concerned with one food or food ingredient.  In addition, feeling better is likely a result of the presence of something rather than the absence of something else.  For example, let's say you feel better eating less sugar.  Could it be that you are replacing some packaged, processed foods with more fresh foods?  It’s likely that eating more fresh foods is leading to improvements in how you feel, rather than not eating sugar (the point being that sugar can ABSOLUTELY still be included as part of an overall nutrient dense food pattern without effecting you adversely).  

Obviously there are some who will benefit from dietary modifications, especially those with diagnosed digestive illnesses.  However, I think that those are in the minority while those with symptoms related to disordered eating are in the majority.  If you are in the latter, I strongly encourage you to work with a dietitian who can help you identify malnourishment (which can happen at ANY weight), challenge food rules, decrease anxiety (a huge trigger for digestive symptoms) and build more adequate and peaceful food patterns.  

I was one of those with major digestive symptoms which I blamed on “inflammation”, “inflammatory foods” and “food sensitivities”.  What I found was that making peace with food was the best thing I would do for my digestive function.  The more regularly and consistently I ate, the better things got.  As I added greater and greater variety and balance, things got even better.  INCLUDING sugar, dairy, gluten, meat, grains, etc (among other things) was my solution, not my problem.  You may find it’s your’s too.  

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD