Can You Go Vegan in Eating Disorder Recovery?

I am more than five years into eating disorder recovery – so you can imagine how scary it was when I thought to myself the other day, “Maybe I’ll just go vegan again.”

To provide some background, I have been eating on the low FODMAP diet for IBS for the past several months. I’ve discovered a (genuine, medical) lactose and gluten intolerance that already makes it difficult for me to sustain my eating disorder recovery. And I recently started being vegetarian again after six months of eating whatever I wanted without question. So, when I recently ran out of lactase pills and thought “Hmmm, maybe I’ll just stop eating animal products altogether,” it brought my day to a screeching halt.

Surely, a radical statement that calls for cutting out entire food groups deserves some curious self-examination on my part. But does it warrant saying I’ve “relapsed” and seeking treatment for my eating disorder once again?

I did some research – for my own sake, and for my future clients’ – to find out what the answer was. Unsurprisingly, I found that there isn’t really a textbook, one-size-fits-all approach to going vegan in ED recovery.

Based on what I’ve read as well as my own experiences, here’s my take on going vegan in eating disorder recovery. I hope this helps you find peace in your own decision “to be or not to be” vegan – whatever that choice may be!

My Story

black and white dairy cow on green grasses during daytimeI first tried going vegan my senior year of high school, after watching the documentary Cowspiracy with my best friend and learning what a profound impact raising livestock has on our environment.  Before that, I had been vegetarian for six years, beginning when I was thirteen.

At those points in my life, my choice not to eat meat or animal products had nothing to do with my eating disorder. When I was fifteen, I adhered to a strict diet in an attempt to get down to my “goal weight” of 105 lbs. I cycled between orthorexic periods of restriction and “cheat days” where I would binge until my stomach hurt.

But I never questioned my decision to eat meat or not to eat meat: my love for animals was a part of who I was, and I thought my decision to be vegetarian/vegan said a lot about who I was.

In college, I quit the vegan diet, only to start it again my second semester of freshman year. My decision to go vegan the second time was deeply linked to my lactose intolerance and my GI symptoms, which you can read more about in my health update here.

You see, I also developed IBS sometime in high school, around the same time that I was dealing with my eating disorder and my decision to be vegetarian/vegan. However, my symptoms would not become intolerable until earlier this year, my third and final year of college, when I would finally see a GI doctor and get diagnosed.

After keeping a food diary, I discovered that a lot of my stomach issues were tied to my decision to start eating meat again as a second-year college student. So, I became vegetarian again, occasionally breaking with that choice at restaurants or family dinners, and found that it helped my IBS symptoms tremendously.

However, I still struggled with my lactose intolerance. Lactase pills helped with the maldigestion and symptoms I experienced when eating dairy products, but they were expensive and made me feel limited in my food choices. I felt like if I went somewhere without my Lactaid, I wasn’t “allowed” to have dairy.

And that’s when the thought popped into my head: “What if I just went vegan again?” I’d save the hassle of buying Lactaid pills every month – and feel like my avoidance of dairy was my “choice,” rather than a product of my IBS. Which is exactly how I ended up starting a vegan diet again – and exactly how I wound up writing this article!

The Facts

As I mentioned previously, I was honestly a little bit frightened when I found myself considering a vegan diet again. After all, I was already worried that eating low FODMAP was causing me to fall into restrictive eating patterns – and I didn’t want veganism to be a “sign” that I was relapsing.

So, to make sure what I was doing was safe, healthy and, above all, right for me, I embarked on a little bit of research about being vegan in eating disorder recovery. In that process, I found that as with anything else, there are both pros and cons to going vegan in eating disorder recovery. Namely….

Pros

  • When done right, veganism is a moral and ethical lifestyle choice, NOT a fad diet. Almost 3x the number of people who go vegan for “health reasons” go vegan for moral concerns about animal rights, according to a global survey conducted in 2019. And it’s no wonder, given the dire living conditions of livestock raised for slaughter in the meat industry!
  • An additional 10% do it for the environment, according to the same survey – which makes sense when you think about it. If you’re passionate about the environment, a vegan diet offers reduced land and water consumption and a smaller carbon footprint. In fact, one medical study shows the vegan diet’s environmental impact is 40-80% smaller than a traditional, omnivorous diet.
  • “Vegan” is NOT a synonym for “healthy” or “low-fat” or “low-calorie.” Duncan Hynes chocolate frosting, Oreo cookies, Fruit by the Foot, Lays Original potato chips, Sour Patch Kids and Ritz crackers are all vegan foods, but not exactly nutritious. Thus, you can still challenge yourself with “fear foods” by seeking out vegan versions of your favorite junk foods or “accidentally vegan” products you already love.
  • For those of us whose eating disorders have been linked to eating vegan in the past, embarking on a vegan diet again, under the advisement of a therapist, can be a way of shunning false “comforts” and ceasing to correlate veganism with your ED. With a little soul searching and a lot of hard work, you can break your mental association between a vegan diet and a restrictive eating pattern, so that veganism is no longer viewed solely as a means of controlling your weight.

Cons

  • Being vegetarian or vegan is a socially acceptable reason to turn down “fear foods.” Alternatively, openly choosing to starve oneself may raise concern from friends and relatives. There is some evidence to show that some people with EDs may adopt vegetarian or vegan labels as a way to avoid certain foods offered to them in social situations.
  • There is a community of researchers who think vegetarian and vegan diets may “mask” ED behaviors, though it is hard to say if they are objectively “right.” One study found that self-reported vegetarianism in college-aged women is a marker for restrictive eating behaviors.
  • The vegan community can be triggering for people recovering from EDs. Jordan Younger, author of Breaking Vegan (who is vegan again, by the way), puts it perfectly when she calls it “vegan bullying, elitism and judgment” as well as “radicalism.” If you “slip up” or leave the lifestyle for any reason, the PETA worshipers will always be there, ready to chew your ass out.
  • It’s difficult to gain weight on a vegan diet, which tends to be high in carbs and low in protein in fat – which is why I DO NOT endorse a vegan diet for anyone who is underweight, in residential treatment or hospitalized for an eating disorder. In those initial steps of recovery, your focus needs to be on your physical state. You can worry about saving the animals when YOUR life is saved!
  • Many residential treatment programs will not allow you to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet, so it may be difficult to find a professional who will work with your restrictions. Usually, this is not because your vegetarianism or veganism causes an eating disorder, per say, but because the restrictive nature of a vegetarian or vegan diet may be triggering for some of the other individuals utilizing that program. Still other patients may ask why your restricted eating patterns are tolerated, but theirs are not – thus hindering their own recovery process while in treatment.

My Advice

adult golden retriever taking a bathAfter hours of research, my conclusion about whether or not you can go vegan in eating disorder recovery is….it depends. “On what?” you might be thinking. Well, I’m no doctor – but here’s my take on when you should (and shouldn’t) consider a vegan lifestyle in ED recovery:

  • DO have a clear reason for going vegan. If you’re feeling a strong urge to go vegan, but can’t clearly articulate your reasons for doing so, it might be fueled by an unconscious ED mindset. Alternatively, if you have a clear reason for going vegan that isn’t motivated by weight or body image control – for example, ethical concerns for animals or the environment – focusing on that goal will prevent you from spiraling out of control and into a restrictive eating pattern.
  • DON’T go vegan if you’re not in remission, or if you’ve had a recent relapse. Unfortunately, the opinion of many experts is that you should not embark on a restrictive eating pattern until you have been stable in your recovery for many months, or even years.
  • DO allow yourself flexibility on a vegan diet. In my opinion, there’s nothing worse for ED recovery than hard-and-fast food rules. That’s why many recovery warriors turned vegans shy away from the “vegan” label, and instead choose to call themselves “plant-based” or “vegan-ish.” In other words, I believe that if you’re craving a Wendy’s Baconater, the healthiest option for your mental state is to eat the damn Baconater and move on with your life – and your vegan diet – the next day!
  • DON’T engage with radical veganism. Basically, stay away from animal rights marches, PETA events and the comments section of literally any vegan YouTube video or social media post ever. There is a small, yet significant subset of the vegan community dedicated to tearing apart anyone who questions or “cheats on” their vegan lifestyle. As someone in ED recovery, you may be more vulnerable to this type of radical language – so instead of training yourself not to fall for it, I say just avoid the “vegan shaming” altogether. After all, most people who love animals or care about the environment aren’t willing to go vegan – so you’re already making more of an effort than most by eating vegan 80-90% of the time! (And vegan or not, you certainly don’t deserve to be cyberbullied.)
  • DO keep a food and mood journal like this one, at least for the first few weeks of your vegan transition. Keep a careful watch on how selecting vegan foods affects your mindset. If you begin to notice old thoughts or behaviors cropping up as you transition to a vegan diet, it may be a sign that you’re not at a good point in your recovery to go vegan, or that going vegan may be too triggering for you to undertake at this point in time.
  • DON’T go vegan without telling your doctor or therapist. Finally, you should always make your healthcare team aware of any choices you decide to make in your diet – especially if you are in recovery. Your therapist and doctor can both help you decide if a vegan diet is right for you at this point in your ED treatment. Plus, they can hold you accountable by paying attention to your thought patterns and weight respectively, in order to alert you if they feel your vegan diet may be triggering a relapse.

What are your thoughts on adopting a vegan diet in eating disorder recovery? Tweet me your thoughts @cozycounselor!

Self-Help Books to Kick Start Your New Year’s Resolutions

Admittedly, my goal of writing more blog posts in 2019 has not been going so well. Why, you ask? Ironically, the answer has to do with the subject of today’s post!

In all honesty, I’ve been reading. Like, a lot. In fact, I’ve made it my goal to read 100 books in 2019 – and I have to admit, I’m pretty sure I’m already falling behind!

Since I don’t get much time to read books for pleasure during the busy semester, I like to catch up on reading for leisure on my breaks. So far, I’ve covered ground ranging from YA fiction to women’s health to Reese Witherspoon’s new cookbook – and I’m proud, dammit!

Because I’ve been so excited about reading lately, I figured I would be just as excited to write about the books I’ve been loving recently. I was right, of course. Since self-help is, admittedly, one of my favorite genres, it didn’t take long to craft a list of self-help books that should be on every young woman’s reading list for 2019.

From candid stories about teaching sex ed to college students to kickstarting creative freedom in a way that screams #bigmagic (eek! Spoilers!), here is my humble list of self-help books (and some “normal” books which helped me, too) that every woman should read during the New Year.

But before I start, a quick disclaimer (TL;DR): I do NOT receive payment of any kind for my promotion of these books. All the opinions featured in this post are my own, and featured without sponsorship from the authors and/or publishers of these books!

If you want to take control of anxiety and/or panic….

The Anxiety Toolkit by Alice Boyes, PhD

Image result for the anxiety toolkit book

Source: Amazon

Why: This book is like an owner’s manual for anxiety. Each chapter is preceded by a quiz that will determine whether the skills in that chapter are relevant to you or not. You have the choice of reading the entire book, or only those chapters which pertain to you – so it’s easy to customize to your needs. In short, it’s like a mini dose of CBT in 150 pages!

If you struggle with overwhelming emotions and/or urges….

The Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay, PhD et. al.

Image result for the dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook

Source: Walmart

Why: After years of therapy and medication, I still had trouble overcoming overwhelming emotions and resisting self-harm triggers. Then I learned about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book literally changed my life. It brought a much-needed dose of zen to my frantic, mile-a-minute brain. Not to mention, you can get it for free as a PDF – run a quick Google search and it shouldn’t take long to find it!

If you’re tired of unwanted, repetitive thoughts and behaviors….

Everyday Mindfulness for OCD by Jon Hershfield, MFT and Shala Nicely, LPC

Image result for everyday mindfulness for ocd

Source: Goodreads

Why: Therapies for OCD can be intense. Personally, I find it easier to tackle my exposure hierarchy on my own, at my own pace. That’s where this workbook comes in: it will guide you through challenging, yet rewarding exercises – based both in mindfulness and traditional exposure-response therapy – to help you overcome your OCD.

If your mental health is taking its toll on your romantic relationship….

Anxious in Love by Carolyn Daitch, PhD and Lissah Lorberbaum, MA

Image result for anxious in love book

Source: Walmart

Why: If you have anxiety, it affects every relationship in your life. Even if your anxiety isn’t about the relationship itself, teaching someone with a healthy brain to understand how your sick brain functions is never easy – and neither is taking care of someone with anxiety. Hence, this is where Anxious in Love comes in. I recommend it for both partners with anxiety and partners dating someone with anxiety. Its eye-opening suggestions for handling conflict and everyday triggers, without becoming co-dependent on your partner or enabling their anxiety, will make maintaining your relationship 1000x easier.

If you’re stuck on the yo-yo dieting rollercoaster….

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat by Michelle May, MD

Image result for eat what you love love what you eat

Source: Amazon

Why: I am NOT exaggerating when I say this book literally changed my life – and potentially saved it. At sixteen, I was two years deep into a spiral of bulimia: periods of intense orthorexic eating and exercise, followed by stomach-churning binges on junk food – you know, “because I’d earned it.” This book reset both my stomach and my brain, and taught me to relearn my body’s natural hunger cues as I recovered from the throngs of my eating disorder.

If you want to make peace with your inner child….

Attached by Amir Levine, MD and Rachel S.F. Heller, MA

Image result for attached book

Source: Amazon

Why: My first therapist ever recommended I read this book when I came in complaining of relationship problems with an ex-boyfriend. As I devoured its pages, I quickly learned a lesson I wish every young woman with anxiety was taught in school: if you are anxiously attached (like me, as this attachment style is a common byproduct of having divorced parents), date someone who is securely attached. Do not date another anxiously attached person, or an avoidant person who shies away from commitment, and believe that you can “fix” them. At the end of the day, you can’t – what you need is stability, and this book is all about why.

If you want to laugh (and cry) along to a poignant story of healing….

Fully Functioning Human (Almost) by Melanie Murphy

Image result for fully functioning human almost

Source: Amazon

It’s no secret that Melanie Murphy is one of my favorite – if not the favorite – YouTubers of all time. Melanie is an Irishwoman who talks candidly about sex, body image and mental health – which explains why I vibe with her so well! In 2018, Melanie released her first book, Fully Functioning Human (Almost), which details her journey through disordered eating, unhealthy relationships and learning to #adult. While it’s not a self-help book exactly, it is chock-full of Melanie’s signature positivity – and an excellent reminder that we are never alone in our struggles to achieve optimal mental health.

If you’re passionate about closing the orgasm gap….

Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski

Image result for come as you are book

Source: Simon & Schuster

Why: I first read this book when I discovered the sexual side effects of taking an SSRI (think: the Sahara desert), and have gone back to it at least once a year since. Nagoski is a college sex ed professor whose book should be required reading in all schools. She filled in so many of the gaps in my sexual knowledge, imbuing important tidbits of wisdom – for example, did you know the most important female sex organ is actually the brain? Or that there’s such a thing as being “wet” without being “turned on” – and vice-versa? If your answer is no, as I suspect it is for 99% of the American adult population, then pick up Nagoski’s book and get back to me when you’re done. Period.

If your resolution is to start (or finish) a creative project….

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Image result for big magic book

Source: Goodreads

Why: Yes, I am aware that I am the millionth blogger to recommend this book; in fact, it’s becoming a bit of a self-help cliche. In my opinion, this is rather unfortunate, since Gilbert’s Big Magic is a real gem of a book. As someone who’s ridden the struggle bus of writing a novel from start to finish (yup, you can check out my novel Wilder & Wilder – published in October 2018 – for $2.99 on Amazon!), I could not agree more with the guiding principle behind Gilbert’s book: in hundreds of splendidly-written pages, Gilbert essentially advises, “don’t wait for the perfect time to start. Just do it.”

If you’re a feminist who loves wearing pink and men/women who pay on the first date….

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Image result for bad feminist book

Source: Ravishly

Why: Again, this book is a compilation of essays by the author Roxane Gay – not exactly a self-help guide. Nonetheless, I still believe it should be required reading for every woman in 2019. In the political climate we live in today, it’s nearly impossible to be a woman (or a man/nonbinary person who fully embraces gender equality) without identifying as a feminist. As the conservative right continues to launch attacks on women’s rights, there is no better time than the present to read Gay’s thoughtful reconciliation of her feminist ideology with her love of traditional femininity, with all its pink bows and lace frills; her poignant movie reviews as a well-educated Black woman; and, perhaps most memorably, her thoughts on playing Scrabble in a big league tournament.

Last but not least, if your apartment floor hasn’t been visible in months….

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Image result for life changing magic of tidying up cover

Source: Target

Why: I’m a firm believer that our spaces reflect what is going on in our lives. As anyone who knows you well will tell you, my room tends to become a pigsty when I’m stressed – and when I start feeling productive and put-together again, it usually leads to a long, binge-cleaning session. In my opinion, there’s no better time than the New Year to get your sh*t together. By following Kondo’s patented discarding, donating and decorating techniques, you can both build a space you love – and keep it the way you love it, without all the unnecessary clutter blocking out those positive vibes.

Click here to keep up with my journey toward 100 Books in 2019 by following me on Goodreads!

The Best Gift Ideas for People in Eating Disorder Recovery

So you want to be supportive of your loved one’s eating disorder recovery this holiday season….but at the same time, you don’t want to be insensitive or triggering. Trust me, I get it: those of us in ED recovery can be a tricky bunch to shop for, as many of the typical gifts – like candy or clothes – are a no-go.

But, hey, good for you for recognizing the challenges of eating disorder recovery! If you’re reading this, you’re already ten steps ahead of the rest of the crowd that’s getting their teen cousin a box of chocolates in an attempt to “fatten her up.”

This holiday, get your loved one something meaningful to aid their recovery, without pushing them or putting pressure on them to get better ASAP. My suggestions are specially geared toward those of us in eating disorder recovery. (If you’re looking for more general suggestions for mental health recovery gifts, comment below and I will write a post if there is enough interest!)

Remember: gifts are lovely, but the best present of all is your patience! If you listen to and understand your loved one’s struggles and concerns, you’re already on your way to winning best partner/BFF/family member of the year anyways. Still – no one ever says no to being spoiled now and again! 😉

 

Body-Positive Reading Material

why not me

Source: SURFACE 85

If you want to support your loved one on their recovery journey, give them a book that will inspire them and motivate them to keep pushing through the hardships and triumphs of the process. Having body positive role models who don’t talk about weight loss or dieting will give your loved one a beacon of light to aspire to when times get tough.

My recommendations….

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Fully Functioning Human (Almost) by Melanie Murphy

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat by Michelle May, M.D.

Guided Journal

guided journal

Source: Creating to Love

Therapists recommend journaling to people in eating disorder recovery for a reason: it helps you process your thoughts and feelings about your body, your meals and your life. However, journaling can be intimidating if you don’t know where to start. A guided journal will help your loved one process their emotions without feeling overwhelmed.

My recommendations….

Start Where You Are by Meera Lee Patel

Present, Not Perfect by Aimee Chase

One Question a Day : A Five Year Journal by Aimee Chase

Holiday Hometown Gifts

homesick

Source: The Funny Beaver

For whatever reason, it may not always be possible for someone in recovery to go home for the holidays. Whether it’s the cost of travel or emotionally draining family members that deters your loved one from heading home, they might find themselves missing where they came from a little more this time of year. Getting them a thoughtful hometown-themed gift brings a little home to them when they can’t be there themselves.

My recommendations….

Homesick Candles

The Home T

Alex and Ani Collegiate Collection / MLB Collection

DIY Craft Kit

brit co

Source: Lost and Found in the City

One of my favorite ways to center myself and be mindful (without having to sit and meditate!) is getting a little bit crafty. From bullet journaling to Pinterest DIYs, getting creative allows ED warriors to remember all the amazing things their body can do – like work with their hands!

My recommendations….

Brit + Co DIY Kits at Target

MakersKit DIY Kits on Amazon

Homemade Spa-in-a-Jar

spa kit

Source: Popsugar

Strapped for funds? An inexpensive way to treat your loved one to a night of self-care is to make these homemade spa treatments. All you need is a little bit of sugar, coconut oil, peppermint essential oil and food coloring to whip up a homemade body scrub that smells good enough to eat. While using it, your loved one can mindfully rediscover their body and everything they love and appreciate about the vessel that gives them life.

My recommendations….

Trader Joe’s Coconut Oil

Sugar in the Raw

Plant Therapy Peppermint Essential Oil

The Surprising Connection Between Digestion and Mental Health

IBS is almost as common as anxiety – making it unsurprising that the two conditions are linked. Could rebalancing your gut be the answer to your mental health challenges? Read on to find out.

Recently, after years of on-again, off-again constipation, bloating and acid reflux, I finally received a diagnosis for my elusive digestive problems: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). When I found out, it was like everything I’d always known suddenly fell into place. After all, I’ve had anxiety and intestinal flareups all my life – but I never thought to connect the two until I got my diagnosis.

One in five adults in the United States has IBS, making it almost as common as anxiety. However, many people don’t think to connect their digestive symptoms to the stress and anxiety they experience on a daily basis. Since I discovered the connection between the two, I’ve been doing everything I can to learn how improving my digestive health can help improve my mental health. From books to journal articles to magazine columns, I will read anything if it has those two magical words – “gut” and “brain” – in the title.

I’ve also recently started the low FODMAP diet to heal my body from my IBS. In the process, I’ve strangely noticed that my anxiety doesn’t seem as bad as it used to be. Considering that most of our serotonin is produced in our gut, this makes total and complete sense from a scientific perspective. Yet as an aspiring mental health professional, I find it completely shocking that I went so long without anyone drawing a connection between my gastrointestinal symptoms and my anxiety.

Part of the issue was, admittedly, my reluctance to seek help; after all, constipation and bloating are hardly glamorous issues. It used to be that I’d rather talk about NASCAR than discuss my bowel habits (which, coming from me, is really saying something!). But I had also never heard of IBS until I was in college, even though I’d had these symptoms for far longer.

This paragraph might be TMI for some, but I remember once, in high school, during the stress of the school play, I suffered from such bad constipation that I had to take laxatives (and a day off school) to recover. After that, I was drinking Milk of Magnesia at least once a month to relieve the pain.

When I got older and developed orthorexic behavior, it was all I could do not to obsess over the constant bloating in my lower abdomen. No matter how many minutes I planked or what I cut out of my diet, I could never achieve those perfectly flat abs like I saw on all the Instagram stars and YouTube icons I idolized so much.

As a sophomore in high school, I was so bloated that I cried trying on my prom dress and, feeling how tight it was, convinced myself that I was “too fat” to go at all. This led to a downward spiral of orthorexia, bulimia and anxiety, which – knowing what I know now – obviously exacerbated the problem. (Eventually, I exchanged the dress for a different size and went, you would never know from the pictures just how damaged my body image, or my gut, truly was.)

For so long, I convinced myself there was something wrong with me or the way my body was built. Then, I spent several long years recovering from my poor body image, anxiety and depression, and realized the problem wasn’t in my weight, but in my gut.

Developing intolerances to lactose and gluten was the last straw: I finally sought help from my doctor, who told me I – like 1 in 5 Americans – most likely had IBS. Suddenly, it all made sense why I always looked three months pregnant in photos, or why my bowel habits were so irregular, fluctuating from nonexistent one week to gas and diarrhea the next. Soon, I also learned that there was a connection between IBS, stress and anxiety, which validated what I had always known: anxiety is a physical disorder, just as much as a mental one.

If this sounds like you or someone you know – or if you’re simply interested in improving your overall gut health – I highly encourage you to read on for tips and tricks on healing your gut for mental health! (As always, I am not a doctor, and you should consult with your GP before making any drastic changes to your health regime.) Below, I’ll share some of the wisdom I’ve learned throughout my journey with IBS, the diet that works for me and some tips and tricks I’ve been meaning to try for giving your gut a much-needed boost.

Gut Health for Dummies

A well-functioning digestive system is one of the cornerstones of good overall health. Because it’s where most of the body’s serotonin is produced, it especially has strong ties to our mental health – a phenomenon doctors and medical researchers like to call the “gut-brain axis.”

But which organs are we talking about when we say the word “gut?” More importantly, how can we tell whether our gut health is good or bad? (While you’d think it would be obvious, many signs of poor gut health are much subtler than pain or erratic bowel movements!) Well, for the purposes of this article, I will use the term “gut” to refer both to your GI tract and to the diverse microbiome that calls it home.

The GI tract is the system of organs that runs from your esophagus down to your anus – in other words, the path your food travels through as it is being broken down by your body. This starts with the esophagus, followed by the stomach, small intestine, large intestine and rectum (your “bowels”). Your anus is the point of exit for any excess waste that hasn’t been used by the end of this process. (See below for a detailed diagram of the GI tract.)

digestion

Within this “gut” of ours, each of us carries as many as 2 kg of friendly bacteria – or what we like to call your “gut microbiome.” We each have a unique breakdown of species populating our gut, which results in small differences between individuals; for example, food intolerances like mine are strongly linked to a lack of “helper” bacteria that break down lactose or gluten.

The composition of your gut is affected by your genetics, as well as environmental factors like whether you were delivered vaginally, whether you were breastfed and whether you played outside often as a child. All these experiences expose us to different kinds of friendly bacteria, which continue to populate our gut and affect our bodies as we grow up.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to change your microbiome – but you can do it both by creating a positive environment for healthy bacteria to thrive in and by reintroducing positive flora to your gut. In mild cases of gut dysbiosis (a fancy term for “imbalance”), this might mean taking a probiotic or upping your intake of fermented foods; in serious cases, such as IBD or chronic infection, treatment could even include a fecal matter transplant, which transfers bacteria from a healthy person’s gut to your own.

When people speak of “healing” your gut, this is generally what they mean. Not only do you want to minimize the inflammatory conditions in your gut, making it easier for healthy bacteria to thrive there, but you also want to introduce bacteria to your body and give it the opportunity to grow. So, feel free to pass this wisdom on to the moms in your life: a little dirt can actually be a good thing – at least as far as your gut is concerned!

So You Think You Have IBS…

“Yes!” you scream at your computer, knowing full well that I can’t really hear you. “That sounds just like me. I must have IBS, too!” Now, you’re probably wondering “So, what next?” Well, after making an appointment with your doctor to confirm the diagnosis (and rule out any more serious gastrointestinal conditions, such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis or celiac disease), there are a couple of steps you can take to help yourself heal faster.

The Low FODMAP Diet

The number one dietary change recommended for IBS patients is cutting out something called “FODMAPs.” FODMAP stands for “Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols” – but if you’ve been on this diet before, you know it pretty much stands for “I can’t eat anything that isn’t sold for $10 at Whole Foods.”

I say this because on the low FODMAP diet, you can only have a limited number of fruits and vegetables, gluten-free grain products, lactose-free dairy products and most kinds of meat and fish. Eating gluten-free isn’t exactly great for one’s wallet – but then again, you can’t really put a price on the bliss you feel from not having to spend half your life in-and-out of bathroom stalls anymore.

Below, I’ve copied the chart I use to know which foods I can and can’t have on the low FODMAP diet. While you’re getting used to the diet, I highly recommend you print it out and post it on your fridge (or somewhere else in your kitchen) for easy reference!

fodmaps

Source: Monash FODMAP

 

On the go, the app called “The Low Fodmap Diet for IBS” only costs $0.99, and provides a simple searchable database of foods and their FODMAP contents, complete with a rating of Low, Medium or High FODMAP next to each food.

Finally, there are tons of bloggers who have posted delicious low FODMAP recipes on Pinterest – I especially love Fun Without FODMAPs – which makes Pinterest an amazing resource to bookmark for meal planning for IBS.

If you’re new to the low FODMAP diet, DO NOT PANIC! Though it looks restrictive at first, there are still so many delicious foods you can eat sans FODMAPs – not to mention that it really, truly does help reset your digestive system, banish bloat and get you “regular” again (if you know what I mean).

Still don’t believe me? Here are some typical snacks and meals I will eat in a day on the low FODMAP diet. (I think I eat pretty normally still!)

Breakfast

  • Two eggs, fried in grassfed butter, with salt and pepper
  • Udi’s gluten-free white bread, toasted, with grassfed butter (and sometimes a low FODMAP strawberry jam)
  • Lactose-free yogurt – I love the one by Green Valley Creamery!
  • Cheerios (which are now 100% gluten-free! Woohoo!) with Lactaid milk and sliced strawberries or raspberries

Lunch/Dinner

  • Turkey and lettuce on Udi’s gluten-free white bread with a side of grapes
  • Quinoa with tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and feta cheese, drizzled with a little bit of EVOO
  • Brown rice spaghetti with grassfed butter and parmesan cheese
  • Amy’s gluten-free macaroni and cheese (with two lactase pills to aid my digestion)
  • Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free pizza crust with sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil

Snacks

  • Dunkin’ caramel iced coffee with cream only
  • Gluten-free cookies (Trader Joe’s has delicious ones!) with a glass of vanilla almond milk (or coffee!)
  • Bob’s Red Mill oatmeal with Justin’s almond butter and sliced strawberries or raspberries
  • Gluten-free crackers (I like Back to Nature or Crunchmaster) with brie or cheddar
  • Lactose-free yogurt with sliced strawberries or raspberries
  • Annie’s gluten-free “bunny grahams” in cocoa and vanilla
  • Banana with Justin’s almond butter packet
  • Fun Without FODMAPs’s low-FODMAP chocolate chip pumpkin bread
  • Bobo’s oatmeal bars

Tips for Overall Gut Health

Besides changing your diet to reflect your diagnosis, there are many other steps you can take to improve your gut health that aren’t related to what you eat. Believe it or not, many of the habits we take part in every day have consequences for our overall gut health. Here are some small adjustments you can make to start a more gut-friendly routine for your body!

  • Take a probiotic. Experts recommend taking 10 billion CFUs of a probiotic containing Lactobacillus and/or Bifidobacterium. (If you have lactose or gluten-intolerance like I do, Bifidobacterium deficiency may be to blame!) A high number of CFUs (“Colony-Forming Units”) is key, since many bacteria will die before you take them. My roommate stores hers in the fridge – no clue if this helps or not, but I’m on board with it. I recommend up4’s Adult Probiotic Supplement, which contains both strains and is more affordable than many probiotics on the market.
  • Dry brush. I love dry-brushing for stimulating circulation and digestion. Using a dry brush, brush your skin upwards with firm motions toward your heart. This gets your blood pumping and all those toxins moving down and out, stimulating healthy digestion!
  • Drink bone broth. Collagen, the protein found in bone broth that makes it so darn good for you, has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Drinking this warm beverage will not only keep you toasty on chilly winter days, but also help soothe and heal your intestines from the inside-out.
  • Chug more water. If you suffer from constipation-type IBS like I do, you’ll probably hear lots of people say “Eat more fiber!” However, eating more fiber doesn’t help unless you’re also drinking the appropriate amount of water. On the other hand, if you’re dehydrated, your stools will have less bulk, be harder to pass and may even lead to painful, bleeding anal fissures (which, I know from experience, can cause quite the health scare!).
  • Test your microbiome. The SmartGut test by uBiome is covered by most insurances, and will tell you what bacterial species your gut is most abundant in – and lacking. Its findings have implications for food intolerances like lactose and gluten, and can also identify species linked to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS and more.

 

 

Why The “Perfect Weight” Doesn’t Exist: Set Point Theory and the Number on the Scale

Your set-point weight explains why diets are doomed to fail, and why no matter what you eat, your body returns to its default state. Instead of fighting your set-point weight, here’s why you should embrace the fluctuating number on the scale and accept your healthiest weight as a wide range.

As a small-town teen suffering from disordered eating, my story with weight loss went a little something like this:

I started off at 5’2″ and 120 lbs, the heaviest I’ve ever been. To most of you, that probably doesn’t sound “heavy” at all – but all I saw when I looked in the mirror was the fat that padded my thighs and lower abs. Losing the first 5 lbs was always easy, but once I got down to 115, losing any more weight was almost impossible…impossible, that is, without sustaining unhealthy changes in my diet and exercise that I could never keep up with for long before bingeing.

Fast forward five years later, and I’ve completely quit dieting and obsessive exercise patterns. Instead, I strive to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle – and still my weight hovers around 115 lbs. I eat less than I ever did at the unhealthiest point in my life, and participate in more holistic movement (though I probably do less intense, vigorous exercise than I did back then) in my everyday life. Yet still, my weight doesn’t budge. Why is this?

Doctors, researchers and mental health professionals alike subscribe to set point theory, a medical and scientific explanation for why many of our scales tend to hover around a fixed number (your “set point weight”). Genetics may explain why it’s easier for some women to lose weight than others, but set point theory explains why, no matter how healthy I eat or how much I exercise, my weight has never dipped below 108 lbs or above 120 lbs.

That’s because the 114-16 lb number I’ve seen on the scale a majority of the days of my life is my “set point weight,” aka my body’s metabolic happy place. At this weight, my body is functioning optimally, balancing the health benefits of minimizing subcutaneous body fat with my body’s caloric needs for energy.

Some women find that their set point weights are higher – or lower – than average. The challenge we all face is making peace with what that number is, and balancing our mental health against the mixed societal messages of body confidence and “fitspo.” For example, if you’re a woman with a higher set point weight, society has made strides in telling you to accept your body the way it is – but doctors may still tell you that your BMI makes you “overweight,” even though the way you lead your life (through diet, exercise and lifestyle habits) may help your body stay healthy and function optimally. In other words, size and health are NOT correlated – despite what many medical professionals still believe today!

These kinds of messages were what led me to develop disordered eating patterns as a teen. While I was told to love my body by treating it right, I was also simultaneously told that my stomach should be “flat,” or else men would find it unattractive and my fellow gal pals would think I was “fat.” This is also why learning to love and accept my body at its set point weight was one of the major steps in my recovery from disordered eating.

If you’re ready to start making peace with your body and achieve your set point weight once-and-for-all, keep reading to learn more about set point weight and how you can “reset” your body to settle in its natural weight range.

As always, I am not a doctor, so please consult with your PCP before making any decisions regarding your weight. Additionally, the material below may be triggering for some women who have suffered from disordered eating and other body image issues, so as you are reading, please take breaks, engage in self-care and show yourself compassion as needed! Whether or not you believe it at this point in your life, I promise you are worth it ❤

What is Set-Point Theory?

First thing’s first: what is set-point theory, and what does science have to say about it?

According to MIT Medical, set-point theory, in short, explains why diets don’t work for long-term weight management. Our weights are held constant at a “set point” – because our bodies have way more knowledge about our caloric needs, fat stores and overall well-being than doctors and scientists can ever determine. Just as your body temperature fluctuates around 98.6 – and just as your body sweats to break a fever – your body, like an elastic band, will always “snap back” to its default.

Though we’ve tried to develop medical tests for ascertaining a healthy weight, such as looking at BMI or body composition, set-point theory argues that our bodies know best, and that there’s no one scientific rule that can apply to every body everywhere.

So, if it’s true that our bodies center themselves around a fixed “set-point weight,” how is it possible that so many of us gain or lose weight over time? While your set-point weight may be determined by genetics, it is not unchangeable; however, “dieting” – as we in Western culture know it – actually has the opposite effect from what’s intended.

Rather than lowering our body weight, starvation diets lead our bodies to slow their metabolisms and conserve energy stores, causing fat retention and, ultimately, weight gain. On the other hand, some people may even experience an increase in metabolism when they increase caloric intake.

Though, of course, increasing caloric intake over a long period of time will almost universally cause some weight gain, just as decreasing caloric intake for sustained periods will cause some weight loss, the problem set-point theory addresses is why these changes are often short-lived. In other words, even though starvation diets may lead to weight loss over time, women are typically not able to maintain a lower weight that deviates from their set-point.

Because of the cultural and medical messages we’ve received about weight as a signal of beauty and vitality, it can feel disempowering to learn that our weight is, for the most part, pretty much out of our hands. While there’s something to be said for the value of regular exercise in lowering set-point weight, I agree with the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Canada when they say that the real issue is how our culture views weight.

In other words, the best way to make peace with your weight may actually be viewing it as a set point that’s determined primarily by genetics. As NEDIC writes on their website, we should be looking at weight the same way we look at height: some people are born big and some people are born small, just as some people are born tall and some people are born short.

To put it bluntly, I’m only 5’2″ – and while this causes me some inconveniences (particularly in the clothes shopping department), I’ve never tried to seek out surgery or at-home techniques to make myself taller. I’ve always accepted this as part of me that would never change.

So, why treat weight any differently? As long as there are no negative health consequences that require medical attention, there’s no need to micromanage our weights down to the very pound. After all, as science and set-point theory remind us, dieting hardly ever works anyways…so, in the words of Emma Stone, “Life is short – eat the damn red velvet cupcake!”

How to Find Your Set-Point Weight

You’ve been converted – you’re motivated to love and accept your body at its set-point weight, and stop micromanaging the number on the scale through dieting. So, now what? How do you take a body that’s used to calorie deprivation and transition it to a life of “normal eating?” How do you prepare for the aftershock and weight gain that often accompany a switch to normal eating?

First thing’s first: stop counting calories and binge-exercising, and start eating intuitively! To learn more about how I healed from disordered eating using intuitive eating techniques (and find out how you can use these techniques in your own life), click to check out my intuitive eating article here on the Cozy Counselor. If you’re struggling with disordered eating and find that you can’t kick the diet habits alone, I recommend reaching out to a professional who specializes in eating disorders for counseling and mental health support.

Secondly, accept that your healthiest weight isn’t a number but a range. Especially as women, our bodies fluctuate in weight for a wide variety of reasons. Every month, we’re exposed to a hormonal cycle that causes many us to lose and gain a few pounds of water weight! Hormonal changes from periods to pregnancy to menopause can all cause minor weight gain throughout our lifetime – or even throughout our month.

Because of this, many weight-loss communities view set-point weight as something that can be “overcome” to achieve a lower body weight. However, I believe we should embrace the range of weights that can be viewed as healthy, rather than striving for our lowest possible body weight! In fact, most people experience regular weight fluctuation from ten to twenty pounds (!!!) when at their set-point weight – so it’s time to stop viewing your ideal weight as a number, and start seeing it as a flexible range. Throwing out your scale and determining your health based on other factors, such as how many fruits, veggies and whole grains you eat or how often you get moving, is a good starting place for most women.

You might find that as you stop limiting “good” and “bad” foods and start leading a life of moderation rather than starvation, the size of your body changes over time. You might gain weight if you were previously below your set-point weight – or lose weight if you were above it. Making peace with these natural changes is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body. Your body can and will change, but this change is one of the things that makes us human. Instead of fighting it, I say we learn to roll with the punches – and learn to love our bodies every step of the way.

P.S. If you’ve enjoyed this article and are interested in hearing more about set-point theory, I highly recommend watching this YouTube video by registered dietitian Becca Bristow! Becca has lots of useful information about nutrition and intuitive eating on her channel, but this video in particular talks about how to find your set-point weight and why set-point theory is a better alternative to crash dieting.

What are your experiences with intuitive eating and set-point weight? Let us know in the comments below!