By Erin Gilbert, RDN, CSO, LDN
Do you struggle with uncomfortable gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, pain, gas or bloating? If you deal with these issues, it is understandable that you would want to figure out the root of the problem. But, before you start a juice cleanse or hop on an elimination diet, let’s check out some of the ways healing your relationship with food may also heal your digestive system:
Eating adequately leads to a happy digestive system
If you’ve been cutting calories through skipping meals, yo-yo dieting or due to an eating disorder, your body is not going to have enough energy to function optimally. In an energy deficit, your body needs to prioritize how to utilize the nutrition it receives. Vital body functions like breathing & beating your heart are going to take first priority, but your body may try to preserve energy elsewhere— like slowing down digestion. When your digestive process is slowed, that can lead to a whole bunch of unpleasant side effects when you do eat– like feeling full quickly, bloating, or constipation. These symptoms may improve once you resume eating consistently & adequately throughout the day.
When you are restricting your food intake, you may also be limiting the types of foods that you eat by sticking to “safe foods”. This causes problems because the gut loves variety! By reintroducing your favorite foods & diversifying your diet, your microbiome will benefit.
You will be able to listen to hunger & fullness cues
Following restrictive diets, only eating in certain time windows, or trying to stay below a number of macros/calories per day creates a disconnect in your body. You are listening to external guidelines for how to eat instead of the internal hunger & fullness cues that are designed to guide you. By working towards healing your relationship with food & eating more intuitively, you can better learn how to navigate the different types of hunger & trust these cues. This helps prevent the stomach aches that come from not eating throughout the day or eating past the point of comfort.
You can put a stop to the restriction/binge cycle
It is common for people dieting or with disordered eating behaviors to fall into the restriction/binge cycle. This involves eating a large amount of food after a period of restriction (known as “the binge”), then restricting again due to the physical & mental distress that occurs as a result of the binge– & the cycle continues.
If this sounds like a familiar pattern of eating, you know that experiencing a binge can affect not only how you feel mentally, but also physically. Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time can cause nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, acid reflux, diarrhea & other symptoms. Aside from these GI symptoms, people may also feel sluggish & tired.
By healing your relationship with food you will learn the skills to put a stop to the restriction/binge cycle & hopefully resolve these physical symptoms.
You can nourish your body with appropriate fiber
People who fixate on eating “clean” or “perfectly healthy” may eat a more than usual amount of fruits, veggies & high fiber diet products to stay full. While of course fiber has many health benefits, TOO much fiber (more than 25 g per day for women, 38 g per day for men) can also lead to digestive discomfort. By working with a HAES dietitian, you can learn more about how to fuel your body with the right amount of fruits, veggies & whole grains WITHOUT going overboard.
Learn more about how to work with one of our dietitians here.
You can lose the diet products
Often, diet products like “low sugar” cookies or “low fat” ice cream have other additives, like sugar alcohols (a type of sugar substitute), to provide flavor. However, sugar alcohols can also wreak havoc on your digestive system— causing things like cramping, bloating & gas. By cutting out the diet products & enjoying the satisfying taste of regular foods, you can hopefully avoid that discomfort.
You can reduce stress around eating
There is ongoing research surrounding the “brain-gut axis” & all of the fascinating ways the digestive system reacts to stress.
You may be familiar with the idea of the body’s “fight or flight” response, which is driven by the sympathetic nervous system. Did you know that the sympathetic nervous system works closely with another system, called the enteric nervous system, which regulates digestion? This means when the body senses a perceived threat, other life functions, such as digestion, slow down so it can direct most of its energy to the brain & muscles for protection.
Stress can also affect the state of the microbiome & healthy gut bacteria, which goes hand & hand with optimal digestive functioning.
Let’s face it– tracking every morsel of food you put into your mouth & feeling pressured to eat perfectly is stressful! You deserve to nourish yourself without worry & anxiety taking up your headspace. By working with a dietitian to unlearn diet culture & food rules, you can reduce the stress you may experience around eating. Your gut will thank you!
**Disclaimer: There are many causes of gastrointestinal issues. If you are experiencing GI distress, we recommend consulting with your doctor/dietitian for individual guidance.**