Eating For Health After Disordered Eating

eating for health after disordered eating

This post is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to be used in place of professional medical care or recommendations. 

I’ve been having a hard time organizing my thoughts around this concept, so this is my attempt to do so in writing.

As someone who comes from a history of disordered eating in the form of intense food restriction and orthorexia (orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with being healthy), I have found it to be challenging to find the proper balance between finding food freedom and developing a healthy relationship with food all while still trying to support my body in the ways I know it needs, especially dealing with chronic health issues.

Anyone who has dealt with chronic health issues such as digestive issues (IBS, leaky gut, SIBO, candida, parasites, or symptoms like chronic bloating, acid reflux, or other digestive discomfort, etc.) or hormone imbalances (PCOS, missing or irregular periods, thyroid issues, adrenal dysfunction or adrenal fatigue, low energy, weight fluctuations, etc.) knows that what we eat has a significant impact on how we feel, and can even help us heal from or manage chronic health symptoms or address root causes to our health challenges.

But for those who might also have a history of disordered eating, this understanding can be a difficult one to navigate – after all, being very particular with the food we eat is a major symptom of many eating disorders.

So how do those of us with a history of disordered eating maintain the progress we’ve made with our relationship with food (or even get to a good place with it if perhaps we are not quite there yet or maybe starting out on this healing journey), while supporting our bodies in the ways we might know it needs using good, nutritious foods to helps us heal from health challenges; health challenges that might even have been triggered by or compounded by a strained relationship with food? See what I mean? It’s complicated.

I can only speak to how I have handled this experience myself, so that’s what I’m going to do in this post today.

Step 1: Release the reigns on your food control. Eat the fear foods.

It might seem counter-intuitive if you’re dealing with digestive issues like food sensitivities, bloating, IBS, etc. to loosen up the reigns on certain foods. But in order to get to a place where we can support these health concerns from a truly healthy place, we need to step back and re-evaluate our relationship with food in general. In my experience, in order to do this, I had to let go of restriction completely. Did I stop eating nutritious foods during this part of the process? Definitely not. But what I did do was open up myself to the possibility of other foods that I had previously put a mental “do not enter” label on – foods that I had told myself were unsafe, unhealthy, “bad” for me, “going to do XYZ” to my body, etc.—as being safe, okay, and options for me to enjoy as well.

For me, those things were often things I really enjoyed. I personally do enjoy a good hearty salad with lots of veggies, but I also really enjoy English muffins, bagels, cream cheese, ice cream, and other foods that for years I wouldn’t touch because for some reason I had put them on my “unsafe” list. So those were the foods that I made sure to eat, whenever I had the urge. I allowed myself these foods without judgement because it is part of the process toward food freedom.

Facing my fears made these foods less scary, and therefore less anxiety-inducing. Often people who have been restricting foods for a long time worry that they will lose control during this step. Maybe you will have more freedom and maybe you will allow yourself to eat more of these foods than you might otherwise. You likely will eat these foods more than you might if you were starting out in a healthy relationship with food. I would like to reassure you that this is part of the process. This is expected, and this is JUST FINE! Because once we allow ourselves to eat the fear foods, they have less of a hold on us, and we can start to enjoy them only when we really want them, and then enjoy them without any guilt or judgement, and be able to move on with our day without carrying out self-destructive compensatory behaviors. This will take time, so have patience and grace with yourself.

Step 2: Tune in to what your body is telling you.

When we have had a relationship with food where we try to override what our body is asking us for or how it responds to foods or what it truly thrives best on, we can become very out of touch with what our body’s innate intelligence.

Now is the time to tune in without judgement.

This is not easy, and it, like the previous step, takes time.

When we are dealing with digestive issues or hormone imbalances, these are things that can be very frustrating, life-interrupting, and even debilitating at times. Our symptoms from dysfunction in these areas can often be the only thing we think about all day. So we definitely want to be sure we’re supporting our body’s ability to get back into balance, as these health challenges are often a result of imbalance in some way shape or form.

Knowing what that balance looks like is part of this exploratory phase of tuning inward and identifying if there are foods that might be particularly triggering of symptoms for you. Does gluten-containing bread make you bloated or break out in a skin reaction every time you eat it? Take note of that. Does gluten-free bread have the same effect? Take note of that.

Does your energy feel more stable and is your mood better when you eat more fat-containing foods at lunch? Or do you feel more energized and is your mood better when you eat fruit at lunch? Explore all of these as options, and take notes. Don’t track, but take notes. General is better because if we get too specific, it has the potential to become a way for us to carry out the control over our food choices once again, and we are obviously trying to avoid that.

Here’s an example:

  • When I had a lunch with plenty of fats, I was satisfied all afternoon and able to focus on my tasks at work.
  • When I had fruit at lunch I felt very energized right after lunch and was able to go into my meeting with high energy.
  • When I ate the wheat bread, I got gassy and bloated.
  • When I ate the gluten-free English muffin I felt good and satisfied. My stomach was a bit bloated later in the day, but I think it could have been stress from work.

If mental notes works better for you, do that! Whatever works best for you at the time and for where you are in your recovery and healing journey.

In addition to acknowledging how foods make you feel physically, also take into consideration how that food satisfied you, made you feel connected to friends and family, or gave you a sense of freedom by enjoying.

Here are some examples:

  • After eating the ice cream, I was able to play bocce ball with my friends without thinking about it! The next day I woke up and ate my normal breakfast.
  • The snack of snap peas didn’t really satisfy me – I still wanted more of a snack when I ran out of them.
  • I was able to eat the bagel for dinner without any guilt or self-judgement. I didn’t feel like cooking a meal and a bagel was easy and sounded delicious, so that’s what I ate. No veggies in that meal, but that’s just fine! Veggies will happen the next time they sound appetizing.

As you start to tune in, choosing foods that support your physical health, as well as your mental health will become more intuitive and more fluid. Fluid because we are always changing, and so do our nutritional needs. Even after healing from health issues, our needs change daily, and so too should what we eat.

Step 3: When in doubt, add in, don’t remove. 

A mindset that has been incredibly helpful for me in my healing journey has been to think of what I can add in, rather than what I can or “should” remove.

For example, I know that eating something with a bunch of refined sugar (let’s use a delicious cookie as an example), will cause my blood sugar to spike and then dip. So, if I’m wanting the cookie, I might have the cookie, but also make sure to top it with a spoonful of nut butter to help stabilize my blood sugar because I also know that fats like those found in nuts and nut butters are a long-burning source of blood-sugar-stabilizing energy. In this example, instead of not eating the cookie and feeling restricted and unsatisfied, I simply added something to the cookie snack that I know will help support my body’s blood sugar stabilization processes.

Many of us with a history of disordered eating also have a skewed perception of what quantities of foods are “enough” for us, so it’s common for us to err on the side of eating too little rather than too much.

And when it comes to dealing with health issues, a lot of the time the imbalances that might be contributing the our symptoms can be traced back to deficiencies in nutrients. If we are simply not eating enough of the things our bodies need, we can experience deficiency related symptoms. With that said, it’s important to add in, rather than restrict while we are healing. Especially because a body healing from illness often needs more than a 100% healthy body in order to get out of the metaphorical hole that it is in nutrient-wise.

What to do if your practitioner puts you on a restrictive healing protocol?

 If you are on a healing protocol on the recommendation of a practitioner you’re working with, you might be faced with a situation in which they are suggesting you eliminate foods or even adhere to a specific “diet” for a therapeutic length of time. This can definitely be triggering for those of us with a history of food restriction, control, orthorexia, or other disordered eating tendencies.

First, I would do your research on this protocol in conjunction with your health concern. Is this the best proven way to heal? If there are mixed opinions, do what’s best for your disordered eating recovery – if that means foregoing the healing protocol, that might be best for your. If that means doing a modified version of the protocol, do it that way. You’re the only one who can make the judgement call here. No matter what you decide, be sure to be checking in with yourself periodically to make sure that you’re feeling good about it all (from all directions).

If the healing protocol diet truly does seem to be the best path forward, it might be time to experiment with it. Remind yourself that this is temporary for your healing, and is not designed to be a diet for anything other than healing your frustrating digestive issues or hormone imbalances. Also remember to check in periodically to see how you’re feeling and approaching it all. If the idea of adding certain foods back in from an elimination diet sounds scary for you, it might be time to back off the diet and reset.

Another important reminder here is that anxiety around food (including navigating a healing protocol diet!) can actually make digestive issues and hormone issues worse, and here’s why.

Proper digestion can only happen when we are in a relaxed, parasympathetic state. Meaning, when we are stressed out or have anxieties around food or how a food will affect us, digestion simply won’t happen as it should, and can exacerbate chronic digestive symptoms.

And similarly, hormone imbalances are caused largely by stress. Stress can take many many many different forms, but if the stressor is food anxiety because of navigating a restrictive healing protocol diet, hormone imbalances can be made worse.

It’s clear that finding a good balance of healing without feeling restricted or fearful around foods in a healing protocol is imperative. So, as I’ve mentioned before, continually check in with yourself to see how it’s feeling for you: physically and emotionally.