In the first part of this story, I shared recommendations for those considering an elimination diet. Here I expand into how my experience with elimination diets lead me to finding balance. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but one I am so thankful for. I finally feel I am coming from a place of understanding, and tuning into my mind and body to guide me on what they need. That my friends, is a reasonable way to live. Because restriction certainly cannot last forever.
INTUITIVE EATING PART 2: FINDING BALANCE
MY HISTORY WITH FOOD
If I am being honest with myself, I had issues with food for a long time. As a teen I fell prey to the social pressures and the “ideal” physical beauty standards. Which inevitably let to erratic eating, body image issues, and over exercising.
I had a reality check in my mid 20’s when health issues became impossible to ignore. I was hit with a myriad of seemingly unrelated symptoms, all happening during some of the best times of my life.
Funny enough, I also thought I was incredibly healthy during this time. And by healthy I mean I ate what I wanted often, but generally followed the supposedly healthy standard American diet. When I indulged, I just worked extra hard at the gym.
In reality, I was immersing myself in mainstream media and attempting to follow their ideals. Ideals I could never reach, and that were detrimental to my self-confidence. I tricked myself into believing my yo-yo eating plan of restricting then bingeing was justified. This led to an unhealthy relationship with food.
Calorie restriction, skipping meals, skimping on sleep, and always pushing myself contributed to my hormonal imbalances, poor gut health, and nutrient deficiencies. My obsession with fitness further destroyed my body image and depleted what nutrient stores I had left.
Now that I look back, even then I inherently knew things were very wrong. Granted I wasn’t ready to deal with them yet, so I let them fester and get worse, but I knew. I can thank my reflection practice for this insight.
You see, mindset is a funny thing. We cannot be forced to change, or even to see things clearly. The timing has to be right, and our mind needs to be ready to accept the change. Without the mental stability, we cannot correct our course.
ENDLESS ELIMINATION DIETS
Elimination diets became a way of life for me. My decades long digestive struggles, and most recently multiple food intolerances, left me desperate. After no luck with traditional medicine, I turned to the functional medicine world for answers.
My thirst for knowledge led me down endless rabbit holes of researching what may be wrong with my digestive system, and the many ways I could fix it. I would pick a method, try it for some time to see if it worked, and move on.
This isn’t a bad method necessarily, because sometimes we can only learn by trying. However, for someone with a fierce Type A personality, it can lead to obsessive behavior. My focus is so good, that I often let things get out of hand (AKA I keep going until I crash). That is just what I do, often times without realizing it. Hello, last December.
In the past 12 months I have tried the LEAP protocol, Whole30, the Autoimmune Protocol, low FODMAP, and a low histamine diet. Previously I also attempted a no-name diet removing suspected foods, strict Vegan, vegetarian, and even Pescetarian. Basically there are only a few diets I have not tried.
Literally all of these programs had me feeling great, at first. When you clean up your diet, and you get through the initial detox/cleansing stage, you typically come out with a reduction in symptoms. Unfortunately for me, these feelings did not last. And in some cases, the diet actually made me feel worse!
When I dove headfirst into elimination diets I let obsession get the best of me. I became carried away with the rules, accepting nothing less than perfection, and even developed a fear around food. I basically set myself up for failure. Elimination diets are hard enough, but they are nearly impossible for a perfectionist.
Besides the obsessive behavior, it turns out that there are some little known health ramifications of restrictive eating for those of us that have existing infections. Instead of putting out the original fire, restriction became be the lighter fluid thrown on a raging blaze. It was a forest fire effect.
For the last 12 months I have been stuck in this vicious cycle. A diet to manage existing symptoms, those restrictions causing me an entirely new set of symptoms, then jumping to different diet to address the new symptoms. Not only were my original food issues unresolved, but I also developed foreign reactions. It started with developing FODAMP intolerance (after mega dosing on FODMAP foods) then histamine intolerance (after mega dosing on high histamine foods) and most recently an entirely unbalanced microbiome (from excessive food restriction).
All the sudden I was reacting to every food, and my safe list was down to a handful of items. Scared to eat anywhere outside my home, and feeling completely lost. I was convinced that anything I ate would make me ill, because sadly it was.
I remember one day sitting at home thinking that I was afraid of food. How did I, the one who has loved all things food her entire life, now fear it? There had to be another way. It was then I turned my existing mindset upside down and came to find intuitive eating.
Think of Intuitive eating as the anti-diet mentality. Instead of rules, programs, limitations, and regulations, you focus on listening. Listening to what your body needs. It requires tuning into your mental state, your relationship with food, and how you are feeling on a daily basis. This allows you to connect your body and mind, and help your natural functions flourish.
If you are anything like me, this requires practice and constant adjustments. It is not something that will happen overnight, but you absolutely can shift your behaviors and mindset.
I had to reframe my thinking to understand when I was hungry and when I was satisfied, because I became accustom to following a specific plan. I struggled with feeling guilt or regret when I broke the “rules.” With a perfectionist attitude, I used to berate myself for messing up. Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” meant I felt ashamed when I colored outside the lines.
Now, I don’t only see things in black and white. Instead, I embrace the gray area. Which means some days I follow a modified AIP plan to help calm inflammation and autoimmune flares. While other days, when I am in a good mental and physical state, I may experiment and enjoy the tastes and textures of something new. If I have a real craving for something I allow the indulgence without beating myself up. Basically, I trust my mind-body connection to guide me.
Intuitive eating has brought me a lot of benefits, but most notable are the health improvements. Expanding the variety in my diet, and thus increasing nutritional diversity, has made an immense difference in my healing. It’s as if my body was waiting for my mind to snap out its delusion so that we could move forward. And now that is has, we are working as a united front.
It is funny to think all that time I was cementing unhealthy behavior by assuming a restrictive diet was my answer. Yes, there are still foods I need to avoid to best manage my thyroid autoimmune disease and digestive issues. However, my mental health and lifestyle factors are also equal contributors. As with most things, it is all about finding balance.
It feels I finally have a healthy relationship with food. One that comes from a place of love and understanding. Filled with a new found confidence, and incredibly thankful and respectful to my body and mind.
Some of the lessons I learned have been subtle. Following are a few of my most memorable takeaways throughout this process:
- Sometimes food can just be sustenance. As someone who shows love and emotion through food, I tend to dramatize it more often than not. But there are occasions where food can be considered simply a form of nutrition.
- Keep things as simple as possible. An obvious point, but it is really important for a perfectionist to remember. Especially during stressful times, I have to practice scaling back on meals, prep, and commitments.
- Practice mindful eating. The frame of mind I am in while eating is just as important as what I am eating. Avoiding eating in a rush or while distracted helps my body metabolize food properly.
- Help support digestion. Eat slow and enjoy food. Practice deep breathing and being mindful while eating. Focusing on the activity of eating and enjoying the process helps my body properly digest.
- Avoid comparison. My food plan may not look like yours, or anyone else’s. And that is perfectly fine, because we are all completely different. Accepting and loving my needs just the way they are is a means to heal.
- Expect and accept the obstacles. These are major changes for me, and require daily effort. Which means sometimes I won’t follow my own advice. Sometimes I will trip and fall. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t start fresh tomorrow.