nutrition journal: thoughts on pleasure and joy, restrictive diets, eating disorder recovery, and intuitive eating

Do you have any rituals that make your weekends complete?


As a Taurus (sun sign), I most certainly do. As much as possible, I like my weekend mornings enveloped in ‘cozy’, wrapped in a blue fleece blanket, a high school graduation gift from my dressage instructor/mentor, comfortable with a pot of tea, pleasing music, time spent clearing my inbox, experimenting with creative kitchen projects, and choosing and planning recipes and meal ideas for the week ahead. Lately, I’ve also been researching and scheming ways to improve the coziness of our inside space and making it ‘even more me’ so when I walk in the door after a long day, it’s even more the space I want to come home to.

Even though we bought our house ‘done,’ and to my liking internally, I’ve been hesitant to invest in decorating the interior since we’ve never planned to stay long-term. But it also seems silly not to put my personal touches on the inside simply because we might move in a couple months or the very distant future.

Which brings me to my real topic today, a little weekend nutrition journal, which I’ll see about sharing more often in this space. Today is about denying ourselves pleasure because of an idea in our head or society’s messages. I follow several of my Facebook friends on Pinterest where I see much of what is pinned for meal ideas and I’m likewise part of a very large and active Facebook group here in Eugene for all the ‘foodies.’ These two groups are quite diverse, but if often breaks my heart to see the pins and posts go over the weeks and years from one diet ‘religion’ to the next. Right now, I see a lot of the sensational meat and dairy version of the keto diet, which seems to be all the rage and I’m sure is not contributing to long-term health.

As a clinical nutritionist, I have all sorts of thoughts and opinions about all the various dieting trends and their short and long-term effects on the body and mind. But when I speak to or think about individuals actually following these highly restrictive diets, I mostly I think about the (very Tauresian) pleasures of eating, dinner parties and eating in community, and eating what nature right outside our doors provides. And sticking to rigid dietary dogma or thinking all the time about what this or that particular food is doing to our bodies is simply not healthy. Anyone who’s ever had or is currently struggling with an eating disorder knows the havoc that rigid thinking can play on life satisfaction.

Sometimes I think about the food intolerances I do have, gluten and dairy, and the food preferences and avoidances I continue with (mostly meat, processed food, high sugar). I stick with the first two since I feel ill for days whenever I eat traces of them. I avoid the second list out of taste preference and because I generally feel better when they’re not consistently in my days.

But I periodically wonder if my subconscious didn’t help create my food intolerances and preferences out of my eating disorder as a way to not be pressured or to be automatically excused from the office pastries, co-workers’ baked goods, supermarket impulse buys, etc. In a way, I question whether my subconscious created a rigid rule to avoid certain mainstream ingredients as another way to control my food?

I consider myself to nearly always eat intuitively these days, meaning if I want to bake cookies or have dessert (which I often do), I will. And if pizza sounds good for dinner, if not today, then maybe sometime this week. I tend to be often training for a race, managing my autoimmune disorder, and eating to stay feeling healthy in those two regards, and that means my goal is to eat to feel good in my body. But I also highly value enjoying my meals and feeling good in the moment. And the way of eating that works for me largely does both.

One of my nutritionist peers shared a social media post recently that has had me reflecting on this topic in particular. It was a ‘Food for Thought’ on current caloric restriction and dieting patterns happening in mainstream culture, and their relation to a landmark nutrition study back in the 50’s called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

Here is what was written as a reflection to the post (not my words, but ones I highly agree with based on personal experience):

1200kcal per day is NOT enough to nourish any adult body.

There have been a lot of people I follow speaking out about how 1200kcal per day (as promoted by @myfitnesspal) is harmful and dangerous. I thought it might be perfect time to look back at one of the key (no pun intended) studies on the effects of human starvation.

The most interesting findings of this study (in my opinion) were not the physiological effects (which are somewhat expected), but the psychological effects. These previously healthy men became newly obsessed with food, looking at recipe books, and talking about food. They had strong urges to overeat, many chewing and drinking constantly up to 40 sticks of gum and 80+oz of coffee each day. Any opportunity to gain access to food, the men would binge consuming thousands of calories in a sitting. Interestingly enough, they also developed distorted self image and some men became preoccupied with their abdominal area.

I love these takeaways of this study from an article on @projectheal:

“1) The restriction of nutrition leads to a heightened interest in food and eating. So there is an “explanation” for why you may be overwhelmingly preoccupied with food. 2) Overeating may be a direct result of undereating. 3) Many features of anorexia are actually symptoms of starvation and resolve with refeeding. 4) Prolonged restriction of food negatively impacts mood. Restriction and weight loss may lead to an increase in anxiety symptoms and obsessive thinking. 5) Inability to stick to strict diets is not because of a lack of willpower. There is a biological pull to maintain a consistent body weight.”

Sources:

1) Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henshel, A., Mickelson, O., & Taylor, H.L. (1950). The biology of human starvation, (Vols. 1–2). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Full study)
2) The psychology of hunger. The American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/10/hunger
3) What we can learn from the Minnesota starvation study about the impacts of restriction in behaviour: https://www.theprojectheal.org/healblog/impact-of-starvation-on-behavior

I formally struggled with orthorexia which quickly became anorexia, which became an incredibly shameful binge/restrict season (which lasted the longest), until my weight was restored and I allowed healthy relationships and less control over food into my days. Learning to eat intuitively also helped me to reach the weight and size that feels best for my body, which interestingly happens to be the weight and size I sought to achieve when I first began controlling my body as a sixteen or seventeen year-old. This is just my experience and one I expect will vary by individual.

Learning about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment a few years ago helped me in not only understanding, but finally working through the shame I harbored for many years about the bingeing phase of my weight restoration, which was more or less part of the physiological consequence of severe caloric restriction and malnutrition.

This is all to say, I’m not a big fan of food patterns that feel rigid or overly forced, and eating in a way to reach or maintain optimal health for one’s condition (as is often the way of functional medicine) has to be balanced with eating in a way that feels good, is intuitive, and doesn’t lead or contribute to disordered behaviors, obsessions, or control-mentality around food. It’s a fine balance and I’m not sure I’ve yet met a nutritionist, dietician, doctor, or otherwise nutrition professional that’s got the balance quite right in practice.

But one thing I do know. We all need to ask more questions of ourselves in the everyday process. Questions such as:

– Am I eating this to feel good in the moment or to feel good long-term? (To which there’s no right or wrong answer but simply knowing is a first step).
– Am I avoiding this food because of fear, or because I want to control my body?
– What makes me feel good (food or otherwise)?
– What do I need right now? (A meal, a snack, a hug, a kiss, quiet, noise, love, sleep, connection, etc.)
– What does hunger look like for me? How do I know I’m hungry?
– What way of eating makes me truly feel my best? If you’re not sure, think back to a time when you felt particularly healthy, happy, and satisfied for more than just the short-term.
– And, what brings me joy?

This last one is particularly important.

One of the major things that brings me joy is baking. I have vivid memories of learning to bake, and doing so has been a lifelong love that I feel absolutely no need to give up. Back to being that earthy, sensual, comfortable Taurus, baking is a way to indulge all my senses in delight and to enjoy the end result.

If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to take some time for reflection, journal your responses to the questions above, or free-write your personal takeaways. Reach out to me if you’d like to chat. And overall, be well in this season.

Stay tuned for a recipe treat coming later this week.


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