Amidst all of the rabid recapping going on on this blog this month (forthcoming), the most important may be on the evolution of this blog and community throughout 2012. I’m totally blown away when I look back at it. We’ve done a hell of a lot, and I could not be more proud of the wellness and radiance we’ve been able to promote.
This post is all about patting our community and work on the back. It’s egregiously self-aggrandizing in some lights. But on the other hand I think it’s important to reflect upon the transformations that have taken place over the course of the last year. They really have been powerful. And perhaps they’ll help us keep our chins up and dream big for the future.
This blog was born at the beginning of May, 2012. This was the result of great strides I made in my understanding of the female endocrine system, my feelings about my body and my eating behavior, and my growing conviction that a truly evolutionary perspective on diet and health requires radical nourishment and self-love.
Which brings us to:
Milestone #1: Evolutionary Health, Revolutionary Womanhood
Of all the things I have ever written in my entire life, I think the synopses on the pages The Mission and The Movement hover near the best and most dear. An evolutionary woman is natural. She prizes her health and quality above life over all things, and she aspires to give her body the precise nourishment (both psychological and physiological) she needs in order to provide the strongest springboard off of which her radiant individuality and life can spring. She is a kickass woman of kickass womanhood, no matter her age, location, situation. She prizes health more than anything, and she does so paying attention to and giving her body exactly what it needs. (Do you want to be this woman? I wrote Sexy by Nature to show you how!)
Getting some of that word and spirit out into the world, and developing a community thousands strong, of women supporting each other in their radical self-love and refusal to apologize for their natural bodies and health and pride– all I can do is give myself a gentle pat on the back, and an enormous high five to every single one of my readers. Especially those of you who are, or who are learning to, walk to the walk.
Damn, you are inspiring. Every single email I get about you troubleshooting your health and self-love ignites a happy fire in my soul. Thank you.
Milestone #2: Fasting is not a panacea!
This one nearly goes without saying. But I think the enormity of our success in this realm in the paleo world needs serious attending to. Much as I cringed while posting a direct, internet-based “attack” of Mark’s articles promoting intermittent fasting, the post “Shattering the Myth of Fasting for Women: A Review of Sex-Specific Responses in the Literature” has literally been viral and helped thousands of women. Thousands!
Moreover, this discussion has moved beyond PfW’s blog-walls and out into the paleo world in general. It is now broadly known and accepted, so far as I can tell, that fasting requires caution, especially for women. Lots of people all over the place are talking about this sort of thing, and it rarely now occurs in reference to my work. I do not consider this a slight– rather, it’s a victory. No one’s talking about this as the crazy thing that happened at Stefani’s lame site. Instead, it’s the good research that now undergirds fairly obvious ideas and no one needs to be specific about anything.
Milestone #3: The paleo diet does not cure disordered relationships with food, but holistic approaches do!
Much of the philosophy around disordered eating when I first entered the paleosphere was pretty flat, reductionistic, and useless: that the right diet would cure it all!
Turns out that that thought process is itself problematic: it can beget negative behaviors and psychologies. No one wants to be told they’re going to find a fix for their cravings in a diet and then be stymied. This leads to lots of self-doubt, flagellation, perfectionism, and frustration.
Instead, the way to truly tackle these issues is with a coupled approach: psychological healing (aided by the evolutionary perspective and revolutionary womanhood!) and physiological healing are both crucial. Neither can be truly optimized without the other.
This is another PfW meme that has become a somewhat obvious mainstream idea. I did a lot of unsophisticated arm-waving on my Paleo Pepper blog (please don’t go read it– it won’t be good for any of us), but through conversations with Diane of Balanced Bites, Liz of Cavegirl Eats, George of Civilized Caveman, Dallis and Melissa of Whole9, Jimmy of the Livin La Vida Low Carb Blog, Karly Randolph Pitman of the Sugar-Lift, and Stacy and Matt at Paleo Parents, along with so many brilliant others on Live. Love. Eat. Podcast and this blog and at AHS and the WAPF conferences, we have really managed to push the psychological/personal/love aspect of all of this into the limelight. What an enormous and beautiful thing. I can only hope to do this more and more in the coming years, as so many of the wonderful people talking about these things keep engaging each other and the world in open conversation.
Milestone #4: Revolutionizing the dialogue on Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome
While somewhat smaller scale and definitely more particular than the other milestones we’ve managed with this blog, this is the one that may have the most specific and highest impact on a subset of our community.
I did write and released a program designed to help women overcome PCOS. But that’s not the important part of this. The manual is a part of my efforts to spread what I think is the good word, but the biggest piece of it all is broadening the dialogue altogether. So far as I can tell, the broad world of public discussion about PCOS that I entered this year was focused on testosterone production and insulin resistance. What my experience and research taught me, however, was that PCOS is far more complicated than that. PCOS can happen to thin women. PCOS can be caused by problems other than insulin resistance. PCOS is a complex condition driven by a wide variety of diet, lifestyle, and epigenetic factors.
Being able to talk about that and share those ideas with women all over the world has been one of the greater blessings of my life.
Forthcoming this week are some more reflective posts. 2012 has taught me boatloads, and it certainly hasn’t been without it’s challenges, failures, and nerve-wracking uncertainties. A lot of it has sucked, point blank, and much of that has been directly at my own fault. I have offended a lot of people, and I have hurt some, and I have not been able to make the whole world harmoniously happy with what we do here. For those things I am deeply sorry. But I have also learned so much, and that’s really all I can ask of myself.
It has only been through the consistently positivity and love and pride that I have been able to participate in on this website that I have been cheered and empowered enough to keep this community chugging along. I am totally ignorant of what shape we will take moving into the future, but it has been a huge blessing to share in the delights of this project with you so far.
More forthcoming– and thank you, none of this would have been possible without you, none of it– and may your 2012 have been full of light and love, and the sort of transformations that lead towards ever more brilliant futures.
Phytoestrogens are a topic of hot debate in the medical literature. To eat, or not to eat? To cure cancer, or to beget it? As chemicals that act like–but are not identical to–estrogen in the human body, phytoestrogens complicate biological functions. Sometimes it appears as though they have a helpful role, but many other times, as in the case with female fertility and typically with PCOS, phytoestrogens can cause a lot of harm.
Phytoestrogens are found in plant foods. They can also move up the food chain into animal sources, which is a consideration for women with endocrine issues who eat factory farmed animals. They are reasonably well tolerated by people with “healthy” hormonal systems and livers. The body responds easily to these semi-natural disturbances and can flush the phytoestrogens out of the system. OR the body responds easily by maintaining estrogen production even while phytoestrogens are consumed. This is not always the case for women. Some are extraordinarily sensitive to phytoestrogens.
For more on the science of phytoestrogens, and specifically how they relate to estrogen deficiency and dominance in the female body, check out my post Phytoestrogens in the Body, and How They Interfere with Natural Hormone Balance.
What I say in that article, briefly, is that phytoestrogens take up places on estrogen receptors in the body. This has big time implications. Many medical professionals hypothesize that this is helpful for estrogen deficient women. This would be by filling up unused estrogen stores, and therefore hypothetically increasing estrogen levels. But other health researchers (including myself) believe that supplementing with phytoestrogens plays a reverse role: instead of increasing estrogen activity, the increased phytoestrogen load (especially given the fact that phytoestrogens are far less efficacious in performing bodily functions) tells the body to stop producing it’s own estrogen, which ultimately results in a decline in estrogen-related power in the body.
Phytoestrogens can also be harmful for women with estrogen dominance, if their bodies do not respond to the increased estrogen load and instead end up over-burdening their systems.
All that being said, I still believe phytoestrogen intake can be helpful for some women if their bodies respond in a hormonally healthy way. This may particularly be the case for menopausal women, whose bodies have more or less stopped produced estrogen in the ovaries anyway. Phytoestrogens may alleviate the pains of menopause while not causing any pituitary-related damage. However, this is an issue, again, of individuality. Some women may find it works, while others find it horrific.
Edit 2016: Recently, after learning about new research and working with even more women, I’m finding that plant-based phytoestrogens may promote ER beta activity, which can lower estrogenic potency in the body as a whole, thereby decreasing the risk for certain cancers (this is not true of synthetic estrogen, like that in hormonal birth control or estrogen replacement therapy). Read more about these latest studies right here.
My personal experience is that I am enormously sensitive to phytoestrogens. I have narrowed down over many years the list of foods that give me acne, and aside from dairy, they are all phytoestrogens. This past summer I achieved clear, soft skin for the first time in three years (save for the scars). I experience small acne bumps when stressed, which is something I am okay with and working on slowly. The only times, however, in which I have experienced cystic breakouts are when phytoestrogens I didn’t know I was eating were sneaking into my body.
These were flax, soy protein isolate (did you know it’s in virtually all brands of chewing gum?! and tootsie rolls? and also that I consumed tootsie rolls?!), and thyme.
We all talk about the dangers of soy and phytoestrogen intake, but the list of phytoestrogenic foods is long and complicated. Many different studies list different foods as having different phytoestrogen content. My inability to navigate them has been the bane of my skin for years. But now I have compiled, however, a list of all of the foods, herbs, and substances that seem to be the most problematic and crop up in continuous studies.
Phytoestrogens can be summed up as: virtually all beans, peas, seeds, and nuts, some herbs, and a handful of fruits and vegetables.
They are as follows, with the most potent foods listed with an asterisk:
***Flaxseed and flaxseed oil (3 x as potent as soy in some studies!)
***Soy, soy oil, soy protein isolate, tofu, textured vegetable protein, and all of it’s derivates
*Sesame, sesame seeds, and sesame oil
*Red Clover leaf and extract
Apricot (especially dried)
Whole grains: Rye, *Oat, Barley, Millet, Wheat, Corn, Quinoa
And to a somewhat lesser extent the fruits and vegetables…
And the substances…
For a complete listing of the fruits and vegetables in this list and their respective phytoestrogen contents, click here: phytoestrogens. I got the data in it from Gunter et al 2006.
Other sources are here, here, and here, for example. For phytoestrogens in animal products (all ~low, and none in seafood and butter), see here.
And, yes! Marijuana and hops (a primary ingredient in beer) are both phytoestrogens. It is worth noting that crude marijuana extract smoke and not just the physical plant matter competes for the estrogen receptor in receptor studies. This means that inhaling marijuana, whether through one’s own cigarette or in the company of others who are smoking, counts as potential estrogenic activity. All that being said, these chemical results were not replicable in vivo on rats, so it’s as yet undecided in trials if it has an effect on humans. Personally, I don’t risk it these days.
Sorry. I’m sad, too.
And as I final note, I strongly encourage you to check the label on anything processed you are considering consuming. Like I noted above, Tootsie Rolls are made out of soy. I had three on a road trip with my family and woke up the next morning with a painful cyst. I didn’t think to check– I though the risk small– but it turns out I was wrong. It took me a week to figure out what I had done wrong, and when I finally checked the ingredients in Tootsie Rolls I face palmed myself in a big way. Lots of anxiety over nothing at all.
Other big sources of soy protein and phytoestrogens in a processed diet are protein bars, cereals–particularly “protein plus” cereals, oat-based cereals, granolas, flax-containing granolas, granolas or cereals made with any kind of seed oil, triscuits, wheat thins, every kind of chewing gum, the more chewy types of candy, and probably most baked goods.
All of which is to say, again, that phytoestrogens are complicated. I don’t advocate that you go crazy controlling your intake of all of these substances. Absolutely I do not. Please keep eating broccoli. But for those of us who are particularly sensitive to estrogen flucutations, such as I am, it can be enormously helpful for understanding why we are getting breakouts, experience fluctuations in our sex drive, or failing to produce as much vaginal discharge as we normally do on occasion. Huge doses of peas or garlic over a couple of days can make a real impact, as can the accidental consumption of soy. So if you’re into the nitty gritty of troubleshooting, this list should be helpful.
If I’ve missed any phytoestrogens that should be on the list, please let me know!
More about progesterone competitors coming soon.
And finally: what is your experience with phytoestrogens? Anyone as sensitive as I? Or the total opposite, and robust?
Are they helpful? Harmful? In menopause, or at reproductive-age?
Due to a lovely letter and set of questions I received from a reader last week, I have decided to respond to a set of reader questions about anything on a bi-weekly basis. These questions will also occasionally be devoted specifically to PCOS. Today is the first of the series, huzzah!
I have also decided to run Cyber Monday back again! From 9AM EST Monday morning (this December 17) until noon EST (December 18) PCOS Unlocked: The Manual will be available for half off the half off! How enormously fun. !
How to get the discount:
Go to the PCOS Unlocked page. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page where you can purchase it beneath the title “for discounts.” Enter “december2012” into the discount box, and away you go!
And here we go!
1) I lost my period at about 8 stone 10 pounds. I am 5’5.
Over the many years I have suffered form HA I regained my period on quite a few occasions – sometimes for a few cycles. Previously it was always at that weight that I regained it – and then, like a fool, I would try to lose a few pounds. However, I stopped getting it at that weight nearly two years ago – and I have since gained more weight (I have been 9 stone for nearly 6 months) and I still don’t have my period back.
Is it possible that every time you have your period, and then lose it, your ‘set weight’ at which you get your period back increases? Or do you think it is more to do with the diet I am currently eating/ have eaten before?
In my opinion, the best way to think about amenorrhea is to think of it as an algebra equation. Remember from the 8th grade chalkboard?
aX + bY + cZ + … = Result
Think of X, Y, and Z as variables that affect amenorrhea. X could be weight status, Y could be phytoestrogen intake, Z could be your stress level… other variables might be genetic predispositions, ovarian health, different hormone levels, how much you exercise, what you eat, your micronutrient levels, your degree of sexual activity, your age, whether or not you’ve born children… everything.
Then a, b, c, the multiplying factors, would be how important each of those factors are, and how strongly they are present in your body at any given point in time. With an enormous value at b, you may not have any problems at all save for stress. Or perhaps your stress levels are moderate, but your insulin resistance is moderate, so those two factors coupled together increase your “Result” enough to push it over the edge into amenorrhea.
I find it plausible that as you stress your system more and more, your body requires more and more “help” from other areas in order to have optimal fertility. This does not mean that your set point is increasing– it may be, but I could not ever say for sure– but it does at least mean certainly that variables and stressors on your body are changing shape. Diet is certainly important– but that depends entirely upon what you are eating at any given point in time. Keep the toxins out, eat whole foods (check out my book for more on this), get plenty of calories in all of the macronutrient categories, repeat.
2) Coffee. I am loathe to give it up, and I have mensturated in the past whilst drinking. However, I will stop if this is a big issue. I can’t see any reference to coffee in the manual. Do you have an opinion?
Excellent question! I do have an opinion. I would refer you again to the equation I described above. You may have menstruated while drinking coffee in the past, but perhaps coffee has always been a stressor on your body and you were just able to overcome it at that point in time. Now it may be a stressor that your body is not capable of bearing. I would call this a legitimate concern for women who struggle with stress and adrenal health. If you think your PCOS problems are related to stress, I would consider cutting the coffee. Or at least reducing the intake and seeing if it helps. Coffee has the potential to wreak some very serious havoc on our stress responses (really it prevents the body from calming down) and that can disrupt the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) axis. With a dysfunctioning adrenal gland, the hypothalamus and pituitary glands can go off the rails as well.
That said, some women handle both coffee and stress quite well. It’s an issue of individuality. I will say however that I believe it is worthwhile to experiment with removing the coffee, simultaneous with increasing your sleep quality and duration, and doing as much stress reduction as possible.
3) This question is a bit more random – but one Im really interested in.
I am currently married and met my husband a few years ago. When we first got together I began mensturating regularly, although I had suffered with HA before. I also gained a bit of weight so that I was about 8.5 stone, instead of 8. I mensturated for a few months and then lost a bit of weight and lost my period. I have experienced periods ONLY after instances in which I was quite happy about and excited with my sexual situation. I would also regain my periods after shortlived affairs during periods where I was single.
I do realise many factors that come into play; when I engaged in happy sexual activity I would often eat heavily the next day. However I have also done this without getting my period back. I also appreciate that it may be that oestrogen levels peal and I, in turn, become more attracted to people when happily sexual.
Have you ever heard of the theory that oestrogen levels are spiked by sexual attraction? I knew a girl with PCOS who didn’t mensturate, but when she started an affair she started to.
I’ve heard rumors of such things before and I like the theory. A quick (quick!) search through some academic databases hasn’t yielded much, especially because you are asking about sexual attraction rather than sexual activity.
I have heard many anecdotes of women who have regained their periods after beginning to engage in regular sexual activity. I consider this the best method for correcting hormone imbalances.
What these women have claimed to me is that “you lose it if you don’t use it” — or at least that it is true in their cases. I haven’t been able to learn much about this scientifically. I can guess, however, how the hormonal cascade might work — dopamine levels, oxytocin levels, and other happy molecules such as serotonin rise relative to baseline when engaged in sexual activity (perhaps to a degree even when just flirting or snuggling.) In fact, it has been shown that snuggling has a very real effect on hormone levels: oxytocin is produced while cuddling and is also known in the popular press as the “cuddle hormone.” So this increase in happiness with a sexual edge may very well be like giving your pituitary gland a hug.
Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin have not been well studied with regards to PCOS. It has been proposed however that hormones such as LH rise due to the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters such as dopamine. It stands to reason that when you are engaged in sexual attraction, flirtation, feelings of comfort, or feelings of excitement, your dopamine and other excitatory neurotransmitter levels increase. These, in turn, may help boost your pituitary function.
All of which is to say that these things– glands, brains, hormones– are still largely a mystery to us. If you have found a pattern in your life, I suggest running with it. Learn from it as much you can, and do your best to achieve that kind of happiness / pleasantness as much as possible. If it’s good for your heart, chances are quite good that it’s good for your body. Convincing your body you are in prime reproductive condition via regular sexual engagement doesn’t hurt, ever.
4) Over the past six months I have gained weight, stopped exercising and I think I am eating a very nutrient rich diet. I eat lots and lots of eggs, butter, liver and coconut oil. I also dont think I am very stressed. Since my period has not returned – and I am very light boned anyway – I feel like Im now getting stressed. At what stage might would you recommend going on birth control or HRT to protect bones?
That’s definitely something to talk with your doctor about– but I would say when your estrogen levels drop below what is typically established as “healthy” or “dangerous.” That should be indicated on your blood tests, and OBGYNs generally know boatloads about estrogen and bone health standards.
That said, however, there are a wide variety of factors that go into bone health. Also, if your estrogen levels are low only for a short period of time, you may want to discuss with your doctor the possibility that you continue to try naturally before working on the estrogen with HRT. I would not stress about it, personally. That’s largely because I wouldn’t stress about anything so long as I could avoid stressing. Also this is a matter of personal opinion and understanding the risks. What you need to know is that your risk for bone porosity increases as your estrogen levels decrease, but your general health and nutrient status is important, too, and short term fluctuations should be fairly well tolerated by most women. It is also a risk happily born by some women. I don’t recommend that, but I’m not recommending anything here.
5) The final loaded question, which is about calories.
I know it is a question of food quality and not so much of calories. But, like I said, I think I eat a really high quality diet. At 5’5 how many calories would you shoot for as a baseline? After years of undereating, and then a good few months of stuffing myself I think my leptin receptors might not be working that well. I think my metabolism may also be a bit out of whack so it is harder for me to just leave it to hunger or set weight. I can eat about 1200 calories per day and feel satisfied.
Do you have any very baseline calorie recommendations?
It’s interesting that you start with the statement “I know it’s a matter of quality more so than quantity…” Because while that statement may have serious wisdom in it, calorie intake still is vital for women who are type II — that is, under metabolic stress — PCOS.
I understand your problem in calibrating your hunger and trying to figure out how much you should be eating. It’s a struggle for anyone who has dealt with dieting, regimented eating, or even mindful eating in the past. What I would say to you with regard to that is to always err on the side of eating more rather than less, and to never try and “go without” food. If you think you might want to eat, you should eat. Period! 🙂
1200 is a very serious minimum for a woman who is 5’5 and recovering from an issue like Type II PCOS or Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. I would shoot for 1500 at minimum, but honestly push something closer to 2000. The important part is to not just “get by” but rather to be seriously satisfied.
Your metabolism very well may be a bit confused right now. The way to heal that is to eat as intuitively as possible and continually give it as much fuel as it needs– forever. Wild swings in under and over eating can cause weight flucutaitons, sure. A constantly satisfying diet over a long period of time is the only way to assure your body that you are being fed.
You also mentioned a lot of nutrient dense foods, which is awesome. Be sure that you are including some carbohydrate in there. Carbohydrate is the most readily available energy source, and it also happens to be crucial for the production of thyroid hormone. Start with a few pieces of fruit or servings of potato / rice each day and see if that helps you find a bit more balance.
As a quick final note, it is possible that you are finding yourself sated in that fasting sort of way on a ketogenic diet (if you happen to be on one), and therefore severely under-eating how many calories your body truly needs. I speak with a lot of women who confess to eating very few calories but not feeling hungry on ketogenic diets, and then hating adding carbohydrates in their diet because they feel some hunger again. That hunger, however, may be an important signal for a woman dealing with type II PCOS / starvation / hypothalamic amenorrhea. (Honestly I think the claim that carbohydrates beget unreasonable hunger is itself more or less unreasonable, and at the very least a matter of personal context.) Carbohydrate intake is a touchy issue for many people. What I prefer to leave the conversation with, therefore, are a) the fact that many traditional cultures eat high percentages of carbohydrate with no apparent health defects relative to lower carbohydrate cultures, and also b) the notion that personal experimentation with our bodies and hearts is the most important thing for our health and happiness. If you eat carbohydrates and find that your body works better, then they are probably for you.
I’d also really like to finish with the comment that I am willing to try anything I listened to your podcast with Diane and Liz and your words about not over emphasising stress/ adrenal fatigue etc – because 75% of it is diet – made so much sense to me.
I know exactly what you mean when you said you would ‘try anything before gaining weight’ – I used to be exactly like that, but I really am not anymore. Now I’m just confused. To kind of summarise I am now half a stone heavier than the weight Ive mensturated at, doing stuff like drinking coconut mlik from the can and no longer exercising. I don’t think I’m picking at the details any more and I would really just value your opinion so much. I have even considered losing a bit of weight – the healthy way! – and then trying to regain it, just to give my body a bit of a shock. Im worried though that would be just like going backwards.
Uh, right. Don’t do that. 🙂 Give your body some love and patience, and trust your body to heal itself. Don’t panic about it. Believe it or not, stress about this, even if it seems like it’s not all that much, really might be a significant factor for your physical health. The fact that sexual attraction has played a role in your menstruation indicates to me that your HPA axis always benefits from some tender loving care. Give yourself a few months and eat intuitively– you may drop weight naturally, or not, but I think you should be totally psyched about being 9 stone and 5’5– that’s a SEXY weight!– and see what happens. Get yourself tested again and see if anything has improved. If not, perhaps revisiting some tests and issues (such as hypothyroidism?) or vitamin supplements would be important at that point.
Now up is an interview I recorded with the lovely and thoughtful chiropractor Dr Brad Fackrell.
In it, we discuss the perils of calorie restriction, the healthy ways to lose weight, my experience with drugs for PCOS, why I think diet is overrated, how important purpose is for health, and my sage advice for mothers who have young daughters and for the young women out there hoping to be healthy and have positive relationships with their bodies in adolescence and early life.
Get it here!
Today’s Food &Love Hack is all about listening to yourself. It may seem obvious, but isn’t really, and might need a bit of clarifying and rallying. It has the added business of being incredibly important.
The Hack: Staying within a relatively natural-foods paradigm, eat the foods and at the times that make you happy, no matter how unconventional.
One of our community members sent me over to a brilliant and daringly controversial piece on the acceptability of different eating styles by Charlotte Shane called “Wrong Ways to Eat.” In it, she discusses the ways in which medical and social food norms influence not just what we eat, but also what we think are healthy ways to eat.
She’s totally right, in my opinion. Who says 3 squares meal each day is optimally healthy, either in the physical or mental spheres? There’s a bit of data out there of course on meal timing, but that never takes into account the rhythm of someone’s life and happiness. Or who says you need to eat a certain amount of carbs or fat? Lots of people have opinions, but no one knows for sure. And who says you should be eating a certain amount of calories? Or that you shouldn’t eat a whole plate of nachos from time to time?
Shane’s argument is that the classification of “healthy” versus “disordered” eating causes problems in and of itself. She closes with this paragraph:
The point is not that eating disorders aren’t real. Many people suffer from a seriously damaged relationship to food, and it threatens their happiness, their long-term health, and sometimes their lives. And many of these people are men, whose trouble often goes unnoticed because we are so much more fixated on policing female food intake. It is only right that people in need receive recognition and help. But minutely plotting and achieving a perfect caloric balance every day reminds me more of the darkest period of my anorexia than it does a calm and sustainable lifelong approach to food. To have moderation in all things except immoderation echoes the close-fistedness of my most manic restrictions. I don’t see the health in it. Healthy eating will never be usefully defined as the inverse of disordered eating. It has a life—it is a life—of its own.
In the article, Shane also discusses food habits such as ritual feasts and purging enacted by traditional cultures that today we would call “disordered.” Yet they fit just fine into these societies, and the people who live within this world are probably not psychologically damaged by it. In fact, they’re probably pretty happy. Pretty honored. Consider themselves even more healthy for having participated. Partaking in that ritual in that society is one of those things that probably makes them healthy by their standards, no matter how they define it.
Shane also “confesses” to purging herself from time to time and being completely unashamed of it. While that’s not a practice I advocate, and while it’s probable that Shane’s relationship with food will continue to shift over her lifetime (as all of ours do), she’s pretty happy. Who am I to judge? People in her life presume that since she’s been a serious disordered eater in the past, she cannot possibly be happy when she says she is now. And she cannot possibly be healthy if she purges now. I had the same reaction: can she be healthy? Physically? Mentally? Who knows? Definitely not me. But if she says she’s happy and it seems authentic, I’m damn well going to believe her.
All of us have complex histories. We each live in unique situations. For all of us, a “healthy” relationship with food looks different. It is probably one in which we eat intuitively, and do not obsess over what we are eating, and feel at peace with food, yes. But what does that mean? Does that mean eating in an unconventional way? Eating in a way that our friends or our paleo colleagues might frown at? Sure, but who cares?
I am a firm proponent of the idea that psychological and physiological health are linked. I think physiological wellness and psychological wellness are absolutely necessary for each other. But what does that look like, and do either of those elements ever take precedent over the other?
Well, you tell me. Given that you know what the healthy class of foods are (those that don’t come in a bag or box), do you eat in a way that feels satisfying? Do you eat those foods most of the time? I think those are the only questions that matter. (…so long as you are not dealing with a specific condition)
While I self-identify as having recovered from long-term disordered eating, this is because I unhealthfully obsessed over food, not because I fit into a certain medical or social classification. I consider myself “recovered” because even while I still eat with a bit of a magnifying glass on myself, it isn’t in an unhealthy way. It’s only in a “I notice changes in my body (such as acne or weight status) and like to optimize them” sort of way. It’s not an obsession– it just floats in my life, easily. I know what I need to do to stay a healthy size and have clear skin, so I do it. That is partly the key to my happiness. I let myself eat in ways that may be unconventional, but love them and feel comfortable in them nonetheless.
Within that framework, I have eating a wide variety of diets with interesting “crutches” or “things to work on” throughout the past couple of years. You might view them as things that need to be overcome, but I don’t. And even if they do, it can happen slowly, within my own schedule.
Some of my friends have been aghast at my habits. When I told my best friend that I enjoyed eating still frozen vegetables with balsamic vinegar (try it!) because it makes you “slow down,” she was horrified. But I was totally at peace with that. It is just a fact– I like slow eating. I enjoy grazing in compressed time windows. Another example: for one period last year, I ate 4 avocadoes each day. I was troubleshooting my acne and wanted to be “clean.” I was okay with it– it worked. For a while in 2012, I ate a diet composed of probably 70 percent carbohydrate, much of that fruit. I felt great bolt physically and mentally.
Today, I’m eating in a roughly “Whole 30” style of equally proportioned fat and carbohydrate throughout the day. I am also far less of an “extremist” than I have ever been, and eat all kinds of carbs, coconut milk ice cream for breakfast sometimes, and Starbursts when I’m feeling sleepy at work. I like it a lot. I am happy. I enjoy it more now. But I won’t impose it on anybody else, and I was perfectly happy in my old habits. They were a part of my personal revolution, and they felt good at the time, just as today’s do today.
So today’s task is:
Do what works for you! Figure out what all the pieces are begging to be fed in your soul. Does your inner child want waffles from time to time? Can you integrate that into your life in a non-obsessive way?
Do you eat when you are lonely? Sure, what you really want to fix is whatever it is in your life begetting loneliness, but if you graze through that time period or even binge– and are mentally at peace with what you are doing and know that it won’t throw you into an obsessive spiral– do it. You will figure out how to hack both of those things with time. Prioritize your mental health in a self-aware and responsible way, and I promise that you will not physiologically go off the rails.
I firmly believe that a part of the reason we become disordered eaters is because we adopt the guilt we have been told to have time and time again about our eatings habits, whatever they may be. If we ate a high fat diet and heard we needed to eat low fat, we might think ourselves disordered eaters and then radically mess up our intuitive eating. If we tend to fluctuate in caloric intake from each day to the next, and then hear we need three square meals, we may upset our psychological and physiologically wellness by trying to squeeze ourselves into what we “need” to be.
People like me write often about disordered eating. I like to talk about how to overcome it, and certain aspects of it that require work and such. But what I am attacking is any kind of mental baggage that may be attached to your habits. Even if you over- and under- eat from time to time, but are happy and healthy, both in body and in mind, do what works.
You may be asking the obvious question: but isn’t eating Starbursts not ideally healthy? Isn’t overeating not ideally healthy? No, not in the purely physical sense. I don’t think they’re all that bad– our bodies are built to handle a lot, and I firmly believe that the poison lies in the dosage–but no, I guess they’re not perfect. But what about the holistic sense? Our bodies are affected just as much by our happiness as by the specific foods we are putting into ourselves. Being perfect does not make us optimally healthy. Only working towards simultaneous psychological and physiological peace does.
Relax into both realms, and feed your soul in as many ways as possible.