Hey ya’ll! Steve and I are soaking up sunshine and good vibes in Nha Trang, Vietnam today, a beach town on the coast of Vietnam. Or, we’re in a mud bath. The only two things Nha Trang is known for :). Anyways, I’m suuuuper excited because one of my RD besties, Rachael, is guest blogging today. Rachael and I share very similar philosophies around food, nutrition, wellness, life, etc., so you will love her. She practices intuitive eating with her clients as well and writes such thoughtful posts on the matter on her Wellness Wednesday series over at Avocado A Day Nutrition. And the post she wrote today on the side effects of food as medicine is no exception! Without further ado..take it away, Rachael! branded graphic with linesHello there! I’m Rachael, the private practice dietitian and blogger behind Avocado A Day Nutrition. Thrilled to be guest posting today while Kara is off gallivanting around Vietnam. My husband and I traveled there a couple years ago and it was one of our favorite trips, so we’ll be living vicariously through Kara’s instagram too 😉

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!

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  1. You bring up some great points! I agree that sometimes the pressure of eating well can do more harm than good when it causes anxiety and stress. However, I truly believe that food should be our medicine. When looking at the studies demonstrating how diet can reverse and prevent chronic illnesses, I am so amazed that more people aren’t aware of how powerful the diet can be. Just watch the documentary Forks Over Knives, for example–beating cancer, reversing heart-disease and diabetes, all by diet!

    My food philosophy is to focus on getting all of your micronutrients through diet. After all, they are what defines our health and supports our immune system! For those just trying to eat better but don’t have chronic illnesses to reverse, I like to suggest incorporating healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes into their current meals in order to “crowd out” the less healthy foods. Personally, I try to not to stress over it because you can’t be perfect all of the time, but I really do feel better when I’m nourishing my body with the right foods! I find that eventually as you add more of the high micronutrient foods (mainly plants) into your diet, you stop craving the unhealthy, less nourishing foods. This ties to gut health and having a healthy microbiome, which has a huge influence on our cravings. I recently wrote a post about it because it is so incredible how cultivating the right gut flora affects so many aspects of our health! Thanks for this great post and providing a different perspective to healthy eating!

  2. Bob Snodgrass

    I was found to have advanced prostate cancer and was surprised to get a broad pitch from the Kaiser Prostate Cancer Group. We recommend chemotherapy for you; we also want you to think about ways to help yourself, including an 8 page dietary guide- the Mediterranean diet was good, I should eat more sweet potatoes and broccoli even if I already ate them, I should eat red meat rarely if at all, and much more, especially more plants. I should exercise at least five days a week, tailoring it to my own abilities and well being, I should realize the great value of social networks and face to face contact with friends and I need goals or things to look forward to.

    The doctor reviewed this with me; he stressed that no diet or exercise program would cure cancer in me or anyone else. They can/will make you a bit better and stronger, but they must be adjusted for individual differences. A few people (less than 5%) have objective benefit from gluten free diets because of genetic differences. He said that strongly religious people have some advantages, not in praying away cancer but in being able to face a problem, make a plan and stick with it. If you can take a real interest in your diet and exercise program and in your medication (many people are ambivalent and easily “forget” to take it) you will do better. Preparing most of your own food and an interest in cooking details could be very positive. If you take an interest in exercise, you learn that posture and breathing are important parts of exercise programs, not only for old codgers. Changing diets, exercise programs or life goals frequently is unwise. Diet and exercise can both change intestinal bacteria (the microbiome) in positive ways.

    This is mens sana in corpore sano – there is no royal road to perfection or anxiety control through diet. Instead of food as medicine, I’d claim less: food is a big wonderful part of life but exercise, love and psychosocial things are also vital. Most of your readers are younger and healthier, but we all need this balance. Most of us can build a life where diet, exercise, friends and work for others bring pleasure and improve health. Mental attitudes are important, social support can help us have better attitudes. Dancing can be very healthful and enjoyable exercise at almost any age. There is a place for talking about feelings. It may be preachy, but I found this approach helpful.

    Understanding of the health effects of our intestinal bacteria is still primitive, but is growing. See Monda, et al, Exercise Modifies the Gut Microbiota with Positive Health Effects. Oxidative Metabolism and Cellular Longevity, 2017. I think you can get it without paying but it is very technical.
    Aged vegetarian foodie, still fighting

  3. Such a good point! As someone with celiac disease, gluten free food literally is my medicine. Shortly after my diagnosis, though, I went through a phase where I wouldn’t eat ANYTHING that could be considered “unhealthy” – even if it was gluten free. I figured, if gluten made me sick, eating “clean” could help me heal faster. All it did was make me lose more weight (even though I was already dangerously underweight from celiac complications) and lose my love for food. Now, I’ve widened my gluten free diet…and I couldn’t be happier or healthier.

  4. Suzanne

    I love this post….it is something I am trying to understand as I am dealing with a resurgence of my adolescent ED…I am immersing myself in HAES, intuitive eating, etc but the idea of eliminating sugar or whatever else, still pulls me in (though I do not act on it) as a magical cure to all that ails. It is hard to make sense of all of the conflicting info out there – and even harder when your brain is in a disordered place. Thanks for being a healing influence!

  5. Elaine

    Thanks for sharing–very interesting and inspiring!

    I believe in being healthy is mind, body and spirit and being so restrictive is not healthy in the mind. eating foods you love that are nourishing is awesome and great most of the time but I firmly believe it is still within health to enjoy foods in sensible servings that are high in enjoyment and low in nutrition value. I don’t like putting numbers on it but if you make me it might be 80% nourishing and 20% (just for fun).

  6. Lauren Shelar

    I love this Kara and Rachael! You ladies are amazing. As dietitians, I think we feel that strong pull to fit into a certain healthy eating ideal, but it’s really when we let go of that expectation that we can help ourselves and our clients. Thank you for being so real 🙂

  7. Pamela Patt

    Love this blog post. I was just speaking with my sister yesterday evening as I am a dietitian and she has insulin resistance we chat about food a lot. She is seeking the perfect diet but also has anxiety disorder and some obsessive compulsiveness thrown in for good measure. She is trying really hard right now to avoid simple carbohydrates and sugar. So of course she is craving chocolate chip cookie dough, breakfast cereal and bread. I want her to succeed but she is kind of becoming miserable and states that she does not feel any different after 3 weeks of “being good” As her sister and a dietitian I was not really sure what to tell her.
    This is the part of nutrition therapy that is more therapy than nutrition and I’m not sure our education prepares us for that.
    I suggested a integrated functional medicine practitioner for a different approach.
    Again loved you post.

  8. Rachael, this is such a great post (thanks for sharing it, Kara!). Professionally (and personally!) I’ve also seen how fixation on food as medicine can sometimes do more harm than good and can potentially lead to greater anxiety, which can have a greater negative impact on one’s health (especially with gut health, in my opinion!). Intuitive eating ties in nicely though, because I feel like that’s what can bridge a gap between food for medicine and a comparison to an external validation of “clean eating” (which, for the record, is such a dumb term. Have you ever gardened? Like – literally, pulling produce from the ground is the dirtiest thing ever lol.) Thanks for the great post/ articulating a lot that has been on my mind lately, as well! 🙂