The Unfair Choice of Mental or Physical Health
The most important thing I have learned throughout my fitness and nutrition journey is that everyone is individual and therefore everyone possesses different needs and wants. What I need is very different than what you need to feel your best. For example, I am a morning person who cannot motivate herself to workout after 8 AM. Many of my friends, however, prefer to workout after work or right before bed. And that is totally ok! What matters most is that you are motivated to feel and do your best.
However, it gets a little bit trickier to follow this mindset when mental and physical setbacks come into play. For a long period of time, I restricted myself from eating dairy, sugar, wheat, and more. I only allowed myself to eat food that fit into a very specific definition of “healthy.” This meant a handful of cheerios, banana, and peanut butter for breakfast. A small salad with chicken and balsamic and EVOO for lunch. No afternoon snack. And the same salad most nights for dinner. This was my every day pattern, plus 1.5-2 hours of exercise. Due to this period of restriction and under eating, my body got a bit out of whack, to say at the least. When I began to reintroduce more food, both in different kinds and in calorie consumption, my body simply couldn’t handle the intake. I already always felt full and bloated (a side effect of starvation mode), but now I somehow felt even more full and bloated. I was walking around, completely uncomfortable all day long. Even though my nutritionist and I worked to increase calorie intake slowly, I could physically feel how much more I was eating with each increment.
Eventually, I did start to adjust to the amount of food I was eating, working my way up to the appropriate amount I needed to sustain my body with the amount of movement I did every day. This allowed me to finally cultivate my intuitive eating habits, learning how to listen to my body and recognize what hunger signals it was sending me. What didn’t get better, however, was my digestive system. Many foods still made me bloat and, to be quite honest, my bowel movements were so out of whack (as long as we’re being open, right?). I never felt “regulated,” many doctors suggesting that IBS was not out of the question. I didn’t realize that many eating disorders result in IBS, as your body no longer processes food the same way after long-term restrictive eating.
So while I was finally eating more and allowing myself to eat ice cream, bread, dairy, you name it, I never felt good afterwards. And for a long time I figured it would get better. That I would adjust after a month, a year, two years… and I still haven’t adjusted. Certain foods just tie me up in knots and while I have tried to track what exactly is the root cause (or the many root causes for that matter), I don’t have any strong leads. Sure, I know what my body is mostly sensitive to, but even after lowering my intake of foods like lactose and wheat I felt no long term difference. At first maybe I felt a bit better, but two weeks later I was always back to square one.
This is where the long-term impact of eating disorders can become extremely tricky: When you are talking about a life of individual balance, such as I do and wholeheartedly believe in/advocate for, it can be really hard to 1. Allow yourself to eat food that makes you feel utterly disgusting and 2. NOT allow yourself to eat food that makes you feel utterly disgusting out of fear you will end up right back where you started: with a negative, restrictive mindset. Have any of you ever experienced this? I try my best to allow myself to eat to my cravings, but at the end of the day, I go to bed more often than not feeling extremely sick. And I am by no means eating a diet that should do so! I eat no junk food (I can’t stomach grease), very little sugar (low tolerance), and dairy is not in my every day meal plan. Of course I allow myself every now and then to indulge if that is what my body is asking for, but this isn’t a daily activity. So how do I balance cravings with the fact I will feel horrible if I listen to them?
Many people have suggested I try the Low FODMAP diet for a while. This is basically a meal plan in which you at first eliminate many foods that are high in FODMAPS (aka carbs that are hard for your small intestine to absorb- fructose, galactooligosaccharides- yes, that is a word-, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and sugar alcohols) for about six weeks and then slowly begin to reintroduce foods one at a time to see what causes a negative reaction. The list of foods with high FODMAPS is huge, including dairy, wheat, a variety of fruits (including delicious summer stone fruits), garlic, onions, and an insane amount more. Cutting out all of these foods is definitely a challenge, meaning eating out would not be doable and meals would have to be very strategically prepared.
I know if I set my mind to it, I could cook to a low FODMAP diet, especially now that I am no longer on a college meal plan. However, that doesn’t mean I mentally could. I am terrified to even try doing so! By cutting out all of these foods, I am back to eating the diet I followed all those years ago when I first developed my eating disorder. And even if it isn’t permanent, habits stick. Plus, even if they all don’t end up being the cause of my stomach issues, what if the foods I love the most are?
When do you choose, and how do you choose, between mental and physical health? For the past few years, I have been prioritizing my mental health, because I would rather sacrifice a flat tummy and regulated digestive system for the foods I crave and for the peace of mind I have adopted with regards to food. But many others choose the opposite, which is a great solution too, if it works the best for them. Recently, many models and public figures have been speaking out about their IBS and other digestive issues that lead them to follow the low FODMAP diet. I applaud their dedication to their health! I just don’t know if this, right now, is the right move for me.
That being said, I wish there was a compromise, and maybe there is! Maybe finally having the chance to cook all my meals will allow me to get creative and explore delicious low FODMAP dishes that leave me missing nothing. But until then, I will be eating all the ice cream I crave and all the bread I crave.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to make it seem like this is easy for me. Yes, I am so so proud of myself and the fact that I finally am getting to a place where those days of guilt are less prominent. But the pain many foods bring does not help me progress a lot of the time. I hate feeling bloated and sick to my stomach. I hate the fact that my digestive system is not normal and that it is constantly changing. I’m in a really tough spot and don’t know the perfect solution.
But, that’s life, and not everything is peachy keen all the time. I am taking the steps to address part of the issue and hopefully with time I will get closer and closer to figuring out what exactly works best for me in this situation!
Have you ever experienced this struggle between mental and physical health? How do you approach the situation?