Restricted Eating Psychology

Let’s take the morality out of food!

With 10 years of gut issues under my belt, I’ve tried my fair share of restricted diets, many of which condition followers to label food as “good” or “bad”. With labeling comes a certain amount of guilt: if you consume a “bad” food and subsequently experience digestive distress, you may feel responsible for making yourself sick. For those who are familiar with the cyclical nature of gut disorders like dysbiosis (altered gut flora), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), you know that following a restricted diet “perfectly” does not always translate to being symptom-free. 

Physiology can impact gut health as much as nutritional choices, including how much stomach acid you produce, your capacity to absorb nutrients, the state of your microbiome, the hyperactivity of your immune system, stress, issues with tight junctions (leaky gut) and history of antibiotic use. Consider a food allergy: it isn’t the food itself that’s making you sick, it’s the incorrect reaction your body is having to proteins found in that food. Despite this knowledge, I still fall into the trap of focusing on what “bad” food I’ve eaten when I have a reaction, as opposed to considering the root cause of my symptomatology. 

My realization regarding the morality surrounding food is born from years of experience with elimination diets. I’ve followed numerous food philosophies: paleo (meat-focused, no grains/legumes), the autoimmune protocol (paleo + no eggs, nightshades, or sugars of any kind), vegan (no animal products with a focus on gluten-free grains and legumes), ovo-vegetarian (eggs, plants, grains, legumes), and paleo-pescatarian (only fish, no meat, no grains/legumes). As I’ve eliminated and added certain food groups over the years, it’s been tempting to assign “good” and “bad” labels that shift with each dietary change. However, the more I learn about the brain-gut connection, the more I’ve come to understand how our bodies listen to the narratives we create and respond accordingly. If you’ve conditioned yourself to associate certain foods with illness over a long period of time (for example you’ve gone paleo and have removed all grains from your diet due to believed inflammatory properties), reassigning grains as “good” during reintroduction won’t necessarily make them tolerable to your body when your mantra has been their vilification. 

Over the past few months as I’ve worked to recover from a recent SIBO diagnosis (my second in 5 years), I’ve assessed the efficacy of certain recommended diets for managing symptoms, namely the low-fodmap diet. The acronym “FODMAP” stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-sacchardies and polyols” which are short chain carbohydrates that, according to SIBO science, create an unusually high population of bacteria in the small intestine (instead of the large intestine where it is needed). The idea is that by eliminating foods with high amounts of fodmaps, you can limit the “feeding frenzy” of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine and manage painful associated symptoms. Unfortunately, long-term adherence to this type of restricted eating can be consequential because fodmaps are necessary in cultivating important gut flora found in your large intestine (which makes up your microbiome and contributes to your overall health).

When assessing the low-fodmap diet from a psychological standpoint, the protocol’s official language is rife with judgment. Foods that have been identified as encouraging overgrowth (such as broccoli, apples, and garlic) are identified as “illegal”, often with the visual of a red stoplight. From personal experience, I’ve felt the inevitable guilt that comes with sneaking a few slices of an “illegal” Honeycrisp and the anxiety after realizing I’d accidentally consumed garlic in a salad dressing while dining out. The mental impact of restricted eating should be considered, given the mind-body connection. Stress and anxiety directly inhibit normal gut activity, changing the speed of digestion and gastric secretions and increasing the likelihood of intestinal permeability and inflammation. Restricted eating designed to improve gut health can be detrimental when paired with scare tactics. 

So what can be done? 

1. If you are introducing any kind of restricted eating, set an intention to be as nonjudgmental with yourself as possible. Rather than labeling foods as “good” or “bad”, cultivate a “focused” mentality. Foods you’re choosing to consume for health reasons are foods you’re “focusing on right now” rather than wasting energy stewing over what you “can” and “cannot” have. One of the most common feelings associated with a restricted diet is having choice revoked. Instead, cultivate agency and empowerment with the foods you’re choosing to eat, as opposed to being told what you must eat. 

2. If you’re experiencing digestive distress and are considering trying an elimination diet, my initial recommendation is always first to focus on transitioning to a plant-rich, whole-foods diet, free from processed foods and refined sugars. If you’re still experiencing issues, consider temporarily removing gluten and dairy from your diet for a few weeks, then reintroducing each individually and slowly. Gluten and dairy are not unhealthy, but intolerance is likely if your system is weakened. 

3. Focus on healing your gut with (I take this every day and have seen impressive results); improve motility with Iberogast; wait at least 4-6 hours between meals to activate your migrating motor complex (MMC) and restore a digestive pattern of motility. Iberogast and ginger supplements (1,000 mg) can also help with motility as well as magnesium citrate. 

4. If you are on an elimination diet, take reduced glutathione in the morning on an empty stomach – an antioxidant that helps support the liver in detox and neutralizes free radicals. Although I’m a big believer in getting what you need from food, an activated vitamin B complex, vitamin C (antioxidant) and vitamin D are essential in keeping your biochemical pathways working properly. Experiment with bitters, digestive enzymes and peppermint oil for improved digestion as well as diluted apple cider vinegar to improve low stomach acid. 

Food and emotion are closely intertwined, and with any dietary changes it’s important to find new pathways to indulgence so as not to feel deprived. Creating pleasurable routines around eating and transforming your kitchen practices to focus more on ritual and less on reality can ease this transition. Listening to your body and discovering your own personal food code is also essential: diets should never be one-size-fits-all.

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