If y’all don’t mind, I want to talk about something that’s been on my mind lately – the idea of healing yourself with food. I haven’t completely worked my thoughts out, so I hope you’ll chime in and share your opinions in the comments!
In my practice, I’ve worked with quite a few clients struggling with chronic illnesses and digestive disorders who have spent years trying to control their symptoms through diet. They’ve had varying degrees of success. While some have discovered ways of eating that make them feel a lot (or a little) better, most end up dazed and confused trying to follow the conflicting advice of all the nutrition talking heads. One new client told me she felt like she was driving around, following signs to her destination, but each one turned out to be a dead end.
“Let food be thy medicine”
It used to be one of my favorite dietitian sayings. When I first started to blog I almost used it as my tagline -how cliché! I loved the idea that food could be more healing than any medicine. I still believe in it! But now, with more experience, I see that even food has side effects.
For years and years, I struggled with anxiety (something Kara and I have had quite a few wine fueled conversations about!). We’ve both kept it under control with self care, yoga/meditation, and treating ourselves with a hefty dose of self compassion. And yes, nourishing our bodies well has been a big part of it too.
I was struggling the most around the same time that health food blogs started to take off. I read all these stories of people curing themselves of illness through diet and were now living this perfect, happy life in their perfect, bright white, sunlit home (with a single bright Turkish rug for accent, of course). Maybe I could play around with my diet and see if it would help my anxiety? And perhaps my crappy two bedroom apartment with linoleum countertops would turn into a spacious minimalist loft in the city as a bonus…maybe?
I tried eating clean. Didn’t work. I tried gluten free. Didn’t work. I tried vegan. Didn’t work. I tried cutting back on sugar. Yep, you guessed it. Didn’t work.
(As a side note, trying to eat clean made me binge on fast food and boxed mac and cheese, trying to eat gluten free resulted in the destruction of quite a few loaves of grocery store baguettes, going vegan just fueled my obsession with cheese, and cutting back on sugar turned me into a miserable human being. Contrary to popular belief, this dietitian is really bad at dieting…which is actually a good thing!)
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. I think I thought if I just followed a really “clean” diet, my anxiety would fade away and the “real” Rachael would emerge, confident, secure and probably rocking a fabulous new boho-chic wardrobe. But I couldn’t stick to a diet long enough to see if it “worked” which was making me feel like a total failure. And when I was dieting, I didn’t really notice a difference in how I felt. While I’ve learned that not feeding my body well makes my anxiety flare, restricting my eating didn’t really make it any better.
In the end, trying to eat “perfectly” was causing me more anxiety than my anxiety.
I have a lot of respect for nutrition. I mean, duh, I am a dietitian and all. But I think the whole “let food be thy medicine” trope forgets the fact that mental health is part of health. Yes, food plays a huge roll, but so does sleep, stress management, fitness, spirituality, social connection, etc. If trying to eat a certain way for health compromises any of these factors, than is it really healthy?
If you’re struggling with digestive disorders or anxiety or a chronic illness, I don’t want this to stop you from looking to nutrition for a solution. But just like with any medicine, it’s important to know the possible side effects. Be mindful of your mental health as well as your physical health!