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Chronic Health Issues and Disordered Eating

When a focus on healthy eating turns unhealthy.

Emily Collick/Shutterstock
Source: Emily Collick/Shutterstock

There is no arguing the statistics that autoimmune diseases, unresolved gut health issues and mysterious chronic health issues seem to be on the rise and our medical community is trying to keep up. Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or chronic health issue can be a mix of many emotions: relief, depression, anger, anxiety, and hope all at the same time. Finally, you have a name for the symptoms you have experienced! Often people are on doctor number four or more before they get a proper diagnosis. The journey to getting the diagnosis is one that can be isolating, dark and scary so getting a diagnosis can feel like a relief.

After the Diagnosis

Many people do a lot of their own research of their symptoms, causes and hope to find ways to manage their health issues through diet, medication, supplements, exercise and lifestyle changes. Whether you take the conventional medicine route or alternative, they both come with their own challenges, making the journey to getting your health back one that can be chaotic and traumatic.

Desperation is felt for those who suffer from chronic health issue. Desperate for a solution, desperate to not wake up tomorrow with a flare up. Desperate to live a normal life again.

Then come the diets. The many, many, many diets that are out there that are promised to provide you relief. Some examples include: Don’t eat gluten. Also, gluten-free bread is bad. Don’t eat dairy. But sometimes yogurt is good. Don’t have low-FODMAPS. Follow AIP. Eggs will help. Actually, eggs will hurt. Don’t drink coffee. Actually, coffee stimulates the liver. Eat a lot of garlic. Actually, if you follow low-FODMAP diet garlic is bad. Don’t eat nightshades. Actually, you should eat tomatoes.

It’s chaotic and impossible to follow what they all say because often one diet contradicts the other.

How Food Fear Develops

Following a diet for health reasons can create mental chaos for some people. This is when some people can develop a genuine fear of food. They have read over and over again that food will make their autoimmune disease flare up so they avoid it. But simply avoiding a certain food for health purposes does not make it a problem. The problem is created when anxiety is surrounding the food.

Some people can follow a certain nutritional protocol for medical reasons and find relief. But others find themselves feeling overwhelmed, anxious and afraid of meal time. They don’t know what to eat. They don’t know if a certain food is supposed to make them feel better or will make them sicker. They find themselves obsessively reading, learning and trying to implement new ways to manage their health via food.

The anxiety that is created by food fear contributes to the inflammation that they are desperately trying to decrease. It’s an unhealthy cycle. Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating that becomes unhealthy and people with chronic health issues are at a higher risk for developing this.

The lack of control you can feel regarding your body and your health can manifest into desperately wanting to control what you eat. This can create severe anxiety that is hard to manage and leads to flare ups on their own.

Signs of Disordered Eating:

  • You feel anxious around food.
  • You lose sleep thinking about how you just ate (fill in the blank) and worry if this will cause a flare up tomorrow.
  • You beat yourself up for not following the diet or protocol you’ve been trying to follow.
  • You obsess about what you’ll eat and spend a lot of your mental energy thinking of ways to stick to your diet.

People discuss diet culture and weight loss but very few people discuss diet culture and chronic health issues. As autoimmune diseases continue to be studied more diets will come out, new theories will make headlines, and more people will need help. When you are suffering from a chronic health issue you need nourishment, and you need food. You want food to be something you see as nourishing your body, not attacking it.

How to Manage Food Fear and Chronic Health Issues:

  • Focus more on lifestyle changes you can put into place such as relaxation, taking care of your body, self-care, laughter, spending time with loved ones and listening to what your body is telling you.
  • Find a professional who can guide you through this journey, someone who specializes in eating disorder treatment, intuitive eating or chronic health issues.
  • Work on ways to eliminate black and white thinking and living life more in the grey area. There are several articles and blog posts that can help you work through black and white thinking patterns.

Finding ways to relax and de-stress when dealing with chronic health issues is one of the most important things you can do for your health. If you find yourself battling with disordered eating and a chronic health issue, know you are not alone. Things can get better, and you can feel calm and at peace around food again. Your body and health will thank you.

About the Author
Danielle Swimm LCPC

Danielle Swimm, LCPC is a clinical psychotherapist who provides speciality treatment in disordered eating and anxiety. She has a private practice in Annapolis, MD dedicated to aiding in recovery from eating disorders.

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