“Real People, Real Paleo” is a series of posts written by real people who were inspired to share their Paleo story with you. There is such diversity in the challenges that bring us to a Paleo diet and lifestyle and in what we hope to achieve by adopting them. These stories are intended to be a place of inspiration, written by real people, showing the diversity of our needs and our approaches to this way of eating and living, and explaining how each individual’s implementation of Paleo meets their needs. By sharing these people’s stories with you on my blog, I hope to redefine what Paleo success is. I believe that Paleo is about being healthy enough to thoroughly enjoy life, whatever that means for you, and about sustainability for our entire lives. If you are interested in writing up your story, please email my team at [email protected]
Eating disorders are an insidious, destructive, secretive, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, deadly mental illness whose current mainstream treatment methods are severely lacking at best and downright abysmal, offering little to no solution at worst! I should know, I suffered for over 30 years.
The term ‘eating disorder’ refers to a wide array of conditions and symptoms including, but not limited to anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and combinations unique to each person afflicted. It is estimated that over 70 million people worldwide suffer from an eating disorder (although due to the social stigma and lack of resources, many do not seek help for their condition and this number is probably significantly higher). Of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate – 20% of those suffering will die within a decade of contracting the disease and young women are 12 times more likely to die of an eating disorder related illness than any other factors. They also have some of the highest relapse rates, the most complex co-morbidity factors (co-occurring conditions including addictions, OCD, anxiety, depression, bipolar, ADHD, ASD) and the treatment is only 55% effective.
For me, the consequences of the illness were terrible, but the fall-out from my attempts to regain my health, my body, my mind and my sanity proved to be way more challenging that living in the hell of my eating disorder. One would think that if treatments for a disease were only 55% effective and the mortality rate was 1 in 5 that there would be some study and research into achieving more favorable outcomes, higher levels of treatment success or greater insight into the physiological and psychological mechanisms driving the disease.. Sadly, with mental illness, and eating disorders specifically, those suffering a expected to accept their lot in life – be shackled to a life of constant behaviour modification, fear of relapse and a reliance on partially helpful medications with many unwanted side effects.
One of the main goals of most eating disorder recovery programs is weight restoration and/or stabilization. This is, of course, important and the functioning of the many systems within the body need to be supported with sufficient energy requirements. Ensuring that the kidneys, liver, lungs and heart are all able to maintain function is addressed in most in-patient programs. There are many pharmaceuticals available to treat the myriad of symptoms presented due to disordered nutrition. The health, strength and resilience of thoughts and thought processes are addressed through many rigorous hours of psychotherapy and perceived chemical mis-firings in the brain are given further medications to relieve the symptoms. Incomplete digestion is supported with more drugs to assist motility and elimination. Many of these medications have unwanted side effects whose symptoms are further suppressed with even more medications. I think you get the picture!
Eating is coached to be a mechanical process and any feelings toward food, physical, emotional or mental are advised to be suppressed and ignored. During treatment, I, and the many that go through it, was led to believe that the digestive consequences of my disease were something I would need to learn to live with in order to achieve recovery. The damage may be too far gone to ever be repaired and I would be forever shackled to the up to 20 medications I was taking daily. ‘Food is your medicine’ is what I was told over and over. No matter how awful it made me feel, I needed to eat it to get well.
I use the term ‘food’ very loosely here – most in-patient programs provide the usual array of mass-produced, over-processed, toxin and additive filled product masquerading as ‘nourishment’ that most medical institutions serve. As long as the macro-nutrient requirements and calorie counts fall under the government guidelines for ‘healthy’ eating, meals are assumed to be balanced, nutritious and, of course, healing. If a patient is unable to complete a meal, the alternatives are ‘Ensure’ or a feeding tube. Treatment had me eating many foods I would never have eaten before (boxed macaroni and cheese, hot-dogs, chicken nuggets, store-bought salad dressing). It was brainwashed into me that these foods were necessary for my illness to be controlled – I should be able to eat anything and control the guilt and remorse.
I left my in-patient program more confused about food than ever, more obsessed about calories than I had been before, more controlled by my food consumption and food regimens and totally reliant on a handful of medications to take care of all my digestive needs from peristalsis to defecation. I had a dietary protocol to follow and needed to challenge myself to eat ‘difficult’ foods. Over and above that, I felt AWFUL. I had never felt worse. This had little to do with the weight I had regained, and more to do with my physical symptoms – excessive abdominal pain and bloating, joint pain, fatigue, skin issues, mood fluctuations, sleep disturbances, night sweats, nausea and brain fog are just the beginning of the list. Nothing was helping. Nothing was improving. My train of thought was literally that being ill, with the risk of imminent death was better than having to deal with all these symptoms forever. This was not a lack of desire for recovery. The symptoms I was experiencing were significantly more uncomfortable and were having an even greater impact on my emotional well-being than my illness had. Is this why relapse rates were so high? Was I supposed to resign myself to this unpleasant existence as my only alternative option to my eating disorder? I began to wonder why each time I developed a new symptom, another medication was prescribed without even a question.
My final straw was my 1 year follow up with my family practitioner. Despite all the odds, I had maintained my desire for recovery and had been following my program to the letter! My bloodwork revealed a fasting blood-sugar that was pre-diabetic, my cholesterol markers were sky high (just short of being prescribed a statin according to my doctor), my inflammation markers were significantly worrisome and my bone density had decreased from the levels I had at my sickest. I was mortified. Besides being offered another slew of medications, my doctor advised me to eat less fat and more whole grains. Say what??? I was eating almost no fats and most of my calories were from whole grains. Logic led to me wondering if, rather than my mental processes, my illness, creating my issues with the food I was eating, could the food I was eating be fueling my mental processes and harming, rather than hurting my body. Could my mental manifestation, past and present, be caused by the food I was eating, the type of fuel I was running my body on. I mean we all know the cliché ‘You can’t expect to feel like a million bucks when eating from the dollar menu?’
I started doing some research around the quality of the food we consume, focusing specifically on gluten and dairy as, at that time, there was upcoming research available on the detrimental effects of both. What I began to uncover was both shocking and empowering. The idea that appropriate nutrition and digestive health could be the cornerstone for both cause of and recovery from my eating disorder was, to me, new, unconventional, way too simple, made perfect, logical sense and was a little crazy, in a great way. I needed to try this for myself.
As I addressed these concerns with both my therapist and the remaining members of my treatment recovery team, I was greeted with horror, accusation and blame. Clearly my eating disorder had returned. I was relapsing. Restricting any food in any way is NOT part of recovery. There is little connection between the food I am eating, my digestion and my other symptoms and the damage to my digestive tract is permanent and something I need to learn to live with – it may never recover. I promptly fired my entire recovery team and began my new dietary protocol of eliminating gluten and dairy.
The results were almost immediate. I couldn’t believe how I was feeling. The bloating in my belly subsided, the pain reduced significantly, my night sweats stopped, my energy levels soared and my bowels began to work normally. Most important of all, mentally I felt strong and resilient. The depression that had been plaguing me for over a year lifted and I was able to implement many of the mental strategies I had been taught to improve my relationship with my body and my food. For the 1st time since beginning recovery I was motivated and felt positive about what was to come. I had something going here!
Further investigation and study ensued. I was introduced to the principles of a Paleo diet and implemented them. I became enamoured with all things ancestral health and nutrition related. There is significant research available linking nutrition and the foods of modernity with the onset of disease and inflammation and a definite correlation between diet and mental illness. I re-educated myself on these new principles of nutrition and the concepts of holistic health and healing.
I removed grains, dairy, legumes, crop oils and other toxins from my diet and my environment. I restricted myself to eating whole, real, nutrient dense foods. I feasted on grass-fed meats, wild fish, free-run eggs, loads of organic vegetables, coconut products and a few roots and tubers. I drank water. I experimented with removing nuts, seeds and nightshades and re-introducing them slowly. My weight fluctuated very little once restored, my body composition improved, my numerous symptoms had all subsided and best of all, I felt FANTASTIC, mentally and physically. The wayward thoughts of my eating disorder were still floating around somewhere in my head, but I was able to pay them minimal, if any, attention and my constant obsession around food was non-existent. I finally knew what it felt like to live, to enjoy life, to thrive. Real food had truly saved my life. Real fuel had given my body the tools to restore and repair.
My medical check-up one year into my new lifestyle choices were shocking, to say the least. All blood markers were well within ‘normal’ ranges and my bone density had improved by over 25% (with no calcium supplementation). The mainstream medical response to these results was that there must have been an error with my previous bone density scan. I smiled, took my results and continued on.
Although a few in the psychiatric realm have recognized the importance of digestive health and optimal fueling in the treatment of eating disorders, this concept is largely ignored by the mainstream medical establishment. There are, however, numerous studies linking digestive health and resilience along with appropriate nutrition in the management of numerous mental illnesses, including many of the co-morbidity factors associated with chronic eating disorders. Delving deeper into this subject along with the psychological and behavioural tools necessary to adequately create effective treatments seems to me like a logical progression.
Eating disorders destroy the digestive tract from mouth to anus, yet very little is done to repair and restore the damage. Through my own experience and those of the many I have helped move beyond similar concerns, it is obvious to me that one of the main foundational pillars of truly recovering from an eating disorder is to remove the agents inflammatory to the thought process (food and environmental toxins) and repair and restore both the digestion and assimilation of nutrients to the body.
I am aware that this is an enormously controversial subject but one I believe, and am committed to, having explored in greater depth. The lack of success with eating disorder treatment programs has been blamed on the voracity of the illness, the complexities of the workings of the mind. The correlation between systemic inflammation and mental illness has been proven. The correlation between nutrition and digestive health and integrity and the stimulating and controlling of this inflammation is gaining mainstream acceptance. There needs to be more investigation into the power of our food choices when treating one of the most stubborn of all mental illnesses. Until that is done, I will continue to thrive and teach those who seek my help how to do the same!