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In our current society, dieting, diet culture, and disordered eating behaviours have unfortunately become more and more common.
A t the same time, we also have more awareness and knowledge about digestive health concerns and unwanted digestive symptoms, like bloating, abdominal pain/cramping, changes in bowel movements (like diarrhea and constipation) and more. What isn’t talked about is that dieting/disordered eating behaviours and digestive health concerns are often deeply interconnected, where one can often lead to the other and vice versa.
What is disordered eating?
Disordered eating describes a range of irregular and concerning eating behaviours. These behaviours include skipping meals, ignoring hunger cues, avoiding specific foods/food groups, experiencing anxiety/stress when consuming certain foods, restrictive dieting, compulsive eating, calorie or macronutrient counting, feelings of guilt and shame when eating and more. You may notice that a lot of these disordered eating behaviours are actually encouraged with most diets, plans, and cleanses. These behaviours don’t have to meet all the criteria for a diagnosable eating disorder (e.g. anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder) to warrant concern, cause mental and physical harm, or benefit from support. Anything that brings on negative feelings towards food and eating waves a red flag. Because of diet culture and the approval, or even encouragement, of many of these disordered eating behaviours in our society, you may not even realize the negative impact they may be having on your physical and mental well-being, including your digestive health.
What are digestive health concerns?
Many people experience unwanted digestive symptoms, such as acid reflux, nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, excessive gas, and constipation. These can be either physical or functional in nature. Sometimes there’s a physical cause for the symptoms, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, gastroesophageal reflux and more. In other cases, there may be a functional cause, meaning that the gut is physically fine, but may be functioning abnormally, like in the case of irritable bowel syndrome or bloating.
Today, we’ll discuss how disordered eating can be both a cause and an effect or digestive health issues.
Can disordered eating cause digestive problems?
Yes! Our digestive tracts love consistency, regularity, and routine. When fed regularly throughout the day, the gut is able to get into a pattern of digesting, absorbing and clearing out food residue in a consistent way. Unfortunately, many diets encourage skipping meals or limiting the times of day you’re allowed to eat, which can result in less consistent meal/snack times and more irregular digestive patterns. Also, when we don’t eat regularly, we can experience more extreme hunger at meal/snack times, which may result in overeating/eating very quickly and this can also cause unwanted digestive symptoms.
We all have trillions of microorganisms living in our gut, this is called your gut microbiome, and they play a large role in promoting gut health. This ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and archaea is strongly influenced by diet. The best thing we can do for our gut microbiome is to eat a wide variety of foods and fibres throughout the day to nourish these little bugs. The more variety we can have, the more diverse of an ecosystem of microorganisms we will create, further promoting gut health. So, when we are restricting foods, cutting out food groups, or not eating enough food overall, this can result in a decrease in the number and diversity of the beneficial gut microbes.
Many diets out there encourage the restriction of certain foods, for example in Whole 30 or Paleo diets grain products are restricted, which are actually great sources of many different fibres and key nutrients. Many diets also encourage overall restriction of food and under nourishing your body. Restrictions of any sort decrease the overall variety of foods we expose our gut and bacteria to. When we experience a change in our gut microbiome, this can result our bodies not being able to digest foods the same way as before, which may result in unwanted digestion issues. For example, chronic restriction of certain foods can lead to a sensitivity/poorer tolerance to those foods when they are reintroduced later on.
Delayed gastric emptying, where your stomach empties slower than usual, can result from not eating enough as your gut experiences a significant reduction in the amount of food it is exposed to throughout the day. Delayed gastric emptying means that food will stay in our digestive tract for longer than it normally does. This can lead to digestive issues such as bloating, stomach uneasiness and pain, heartburn and constipation.
Negative emotions associated with eating, including anxiety towards eating certain food or stress eating, can also result in digestive symptoms. For healthy digestion, our body must be in a “rest and digest” state, which means we must feel relaxed in order to digest well. When anxiety comes along and leads to mealtime or chronic stress in the body, our digestive system will start functioning less than optimally. A stressed gut can experience more bloating, abdominal pain/cramping, and change in bowel patterns.
And what about the other way around, do digestive problems result in disordered eating?
Digestive health issues are a possible risk factor for the development of disordered eating. For example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is shown to be associated with disordered eating. This is likely because as people experience unwanted digestive symptoms, they may begin to cut out specific foods to try to identify food triggers and try to improve their symptoms. There are also many clinicians out there that recommend restrictive or elimination diets to resolve symptoms, such as the low FODMAP diet, and for people who are already experiencing a disordered relationship with food, this can worsen the situation by creating more stress and anxiety with eating and by further decreasing the variety of foods a person may be eating.
What do I recommend?
- Start by developing consistent meal and snack times – this helps to decrease both disordered eating and digestive health concerns
- Try to make your meals balanced and your snacks more filling
- Incorporate a wide variety of foods each day
- Seek mental health support to address anxiety and stress, and develop stress-coping strategies, such as meditation, gut-directed hypnotherapy, relaxation techniques
- Work with a Registered Dietitian who is well-versed in gut health AND food relationship to address ongoing symptoms
Written by Liz Powell, RD and Joy Tang
- Bouchaud, C. (2020, February 19). Eating Disorders and Gut Health - Which comes first? Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.thebalanceddietitian.com/post/edandguthealth
- Harer, K. (2019). Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Disordered Eating, and Eating Disorders. Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 15(5). doi:https://www.gastroenterologyandhepatology.net/files/2019/06/gh0519Harer-1.pdf
- Santonicola, A., Gagliardi, M., Guarino, M. P., Siniscalchi, M., Ciacci, C., & Iovino, P. (2019). Eating Disorders and Gastrointestinal Diseases. Nutrients, 11(12), 3038. doi:10.3390/nu11123038