Do you ever feel like you have to choose between your mental health and your physical health? Ever worry that you can't have both -- you can't do the things that support your mental health AND do the things that support your physical body?
Maybe you're divided between something like intuitive eating, an anti-diet approach to health and wellness, and something like an elimination diet, a possible management plan for autoimmune disease or chronic illness.
You want to feel better, so you're really curious about the autoimmune protocol or Paleo or gluten-free eating. Or perhaps you've been recommend to cut out particular foods based on a medical restriction, intolerance or sensitivity. But, you've also done diets in the past and you really don't want to get back on one.
If this is where you find yourself today, I want you to know you're not alone. You're suffering from what I call Split Health Stress.
Even more importantly?
I want you to know that you don't have to choose between your mental and physical health. You can have both. You can follow the principles of intuitive eating even while on an elimination diet.
To dig into how this possible, let's start at the beginning.
As you may or may not know, there's an anti-diet movement in the world right now. Basically, research is starting to show that diets often lead to binging and long-term weight gain rather than weight loss. Plus, when it comes to recovering from disordered eating, we're recognizing that diets may play a part in the unwanted behavior and not so much in the solution.
The takeaway is this: diets don’t work nearly as well as we thought they did.
One big reason for this is that diets are based on restriction and deprivation... and we're finding that restriction and deprivation often lead to disordered or binge eating, increased levels of stress and unhealthy relationships to food as a whole.
So, as more and more of us want to adopt natural treatments for health challenges like autoimmune disease, chronic illness and chronic pain (i.e. we're looking towards anti-inflammatory or elimination based diets), we're also more skeptical than ever about whether or not those plans will actually work for us.
We're wondering... what if I need to diet for my health?... while also wondering... but what if I don't want to feel restricted or deprived?
This is the topic I want to address today and these are the questions I want to answer. I am not going to tell you what to eat, or what to avoid, because I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist. Instead, I'm going to show you that you do not have to feel restricted or deprived no matter how you choose to eat.
In other words, intuitive eating on an elimination diet requires way more shifts in mindset than does in behavior.
You see, inside The Boulevard, we define a diet as an externally-driven way of eating that is adopted (1) to give a false sense of control (over body shape, size, health, etc.), (2) as something that single-handedly dictates behavior and (3) with the (unconscious) understanding that how well we stay on plan will greatly influence internal worth.
In other words, you're dieting not because you're eating in a particular way but because:
The problem with a diet arises not so much because we're eating (or not eating) specific foods, but because those foods carry guilt, "shoulds" and/or moral obligations. We're good... we're bad... we're on plan... we're off plan... we fell off the wagon... we got back on the wagon...
Language like this begins to imply something about us as human beings. (It starts to affect our worth.)
When it comes to intuitive eating on an elimination based diet, we need to start by addressing that there's nothing wrong with choosing to eat in accordance with a set of principles or ideas.
There's nothing wrong with choosing the autoimmune protocol.
There's nothing wrong with eating gluten-free.
There's nothing wrong with Paleo or Keto or Vegan.
And there's nothing wrong for advocating for yourself while you eat in this way.
The difference between a "diet" that might cause more harm than good and a way of eating that benefits us for the long-term is found in the feelings.
Do you feel forced, restricted and deprived?
Or do you feel nourished, free and empowered?
Do you eat a certain way because it's what is best for *you*?
Or do you eat a certain way because it's the only "right" way to eat?
If you want to eat in a particular manner -- whether for medical reasons, intolerances or personal values -- but you don't want to feel restricted or deprived as you adopt any sort of elimination diet, then I recommend something I like to call The MERGE Method.
The MERGE Method:
(1) Make sure the cause
(2) Eat for daily health
(3) Reject the rules
(4) Grow into relationship with self
(5) Extend that relationship
Here's what this means.
(1) MAKE SURE THE CAUSE.
Many people are starting to provide the Paleo Diet or Autoimmune Protocol to those with chronic illness or autoimmune disease. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence in support of these diets... plus many of us can agree that eating whole foods is pretty awesome for our health.
However, it’s important to realize that these diets can be adopted without restriction AND that these diets may or may not work for you in particular.
(Aka, there really is no one right way to heal.)
Part of the problem today, with increased access to the Internet, is that our doctors and providers aren't always the ones sending patients home with dietary and lifestyle recommendations. Too often, we're taking our advice from those we find on the Internet, or in bookstores, and self-diagnosing.
There are a lot of benefits that can be seen from dietary changes. But we still want to work with a team of providers we trust. It’s important to explore and experiment under supervision to find the combination of professional care and self-care (or natural care) that works for us.
Plus, it's important to look at why we're adopting a particular elimination diet and question whether or not that reasoning is actually true... for us.
A lot of people might desire a more natural illness management plan because of the side effects of medication. And don't get me wrong -- there are side effects of medication. However, there are also side effects of "natural healing", like dietary changes. It's important to talk about ALL of the potential risks before making a decision.
You can choose natural or conventional, or any combination of routes, and no matter what you decide you can still value your health. You are no less for choosing medication, possibly because your mental health will benefit or because your symptoms are severe, and you get no gold stars for choosing a more "natural" route. We need to *morally* neutralize these decisions, so that we can choose what’s best for us individually in any given season.
(P.s. If this conversation resonates with you, join The Wellness Boulevard for immediate access to a class taught by myself and therapist Nicole Ness on the side effects of natural healing and restriction. Nicole breaks down how our behavior around food could be contributing to our physical symptoms and not necessarily the food itself!)
"Make sure the cause" is the first step of The MERGE Method, a 5-step plan to eat intuitively on an elimination diet, because we need to make sure that food (and not another source of stress or inflammation) IS at the root of whatever symptom or problem we're experiencing.
Is it really a particular food that causes a certain physical reaction in your body?
Could you be experiencing the nocebo effect?
Are you getting enough food, calories and nutrients in your body?
If so, are you getting enough fats, carbohydrates and proteins?
What's your relationship like with food? Could that be causing a problem?
Are you exercising enough -- or exercising too much?
Are certain toxins in the home causing certain symptoms?
Are you getting enough sun? Time spent in meditation?
What kind of stress might your career cause? Or your relationships?
All in all, it's really helpful to make sure that food (and which particular food) is at the root of any symptom because it's this personalized information that helps us feel empowered in the choices we're making rather than controlled by what we think we're supposed to do.
"But, Kel! What about what the experts say? What about all of the people who made dietary changes and cured issues? Shouldn't I just trust them?"
There really is a lot of anecdotal evidence in support of dietary changes. An elimination diet may help you feel better and that's why it's important to consider it if you're curious and want to.
However, I can also share with you anecdotal evidence that "shows" food might have no impact on what you're experiencing. (Meaning, friends of mine have tried elimination diets without seeing the results they wanted.) While it's important to consider food as a trigger, it's also important to consider other life factors as well.
(2) EAT FOR HEALTH (NOT FOR WEIGHT OR CONTROL).
This is a biggie. This involves undoing all of the diet mentality and body image challenges we face... plus it involves letting go of control.
When I say control, I mean we have to both let go of the desire to control our size (weight) AND the desire to control our health (to eradicate sickness or guarantee survival).
We can't claim we're eating for our "health", for "medical restriction", for "healing", for "remission"... when we're really, secretly, subtly eating for "thinness" or for "control".
The problem with diets, including the ones designed not for weight less but for health, is that much of the language explaining these diets and how to participate calls for emotional and physical deprivation as a barrier to entry. Plus, how well we've done at following our diet is typically what also determines how good we're supposed to feel about ourselves.
(I first learned about this concept of emotional deprivation from Isabel Foxen Duke. Read more from her about how binge eating is a biological response to these forms of deprivation.)
Meaning, many teach these elimination diets with emotionally-fueled rules leading the way. Many conversations around autoimmune disease, chronic illness and health related dietary changes are full of judgment, willpower and even blame.
I know you might be shaking your head right now, thinking... "Duh Kel. Of course I'm eating for health not for weight. I want to feel better." And I totally believe you! After all, I've uttered the same sentence and I, too, was eating for health... about 80% of the time.
But that 20%? That's what we've got to talk about.
Because that's the only way we can really choose foods that leave us feeling good for the long run. And that choice? That's possibly the #1 biggest key when it comes to eating intuitive on an elimination diet.
(3) REJECT THE RULES AND CHOOSE WHAT YOU EAT
For the most part, even our health based diets are strict and chock full of restriction and deprivation. But if you want to eat intuitively and feel free around food while following any one of these diets, then you have to stop following the rules.
You know the information. You know what generally leaves you feeling good and what generally leaves you feeling not so good. (This is why step #1 is so important! You want to gather this personalized data for yourself based on your body!)
Instead of feeling forced to eat certain foods and avoid others, everything becomes a choice. Which means the effects of what you eat — how you might physically or emotionally feel afterward — must also become a choice.
If I have a sensitivity to gluten, and I choose something with gluten, then I can also choose the potential physical reaction that comes next... and that has to be morally okay. I've got to feel allowed to make that choice.
At the same time, choosing to not eat gluten, and therefore choosing to not risk a potential physical reaction, has to be okay, too. We have to be allowed to make either choice depending on what's in *our* best interest in any given moment.
The goal here is that WE are no longer good or bad, right or wrong, love-able or shun-able, depending on what we eat... even if we choose a food that leaves us feeling not-so-great. It all comes back to choice rather than force and making decisions out of love (of self and others) rather than fear (of illness or loss).
One quick final note on this step: I choose the word reject because it elicits feelings of action and empowerment. And that's exactly what this is all about. Making empowered choices and decisions by rewriting any outdated beliefs we held around Step #2 and moving into greater awareness with Step #4.
(4) GROW A RELATIONSHIP WITH SELF AND BODY.
Intuitive eating (a concept I first learned from Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole) can, in my opinion, boil down into two things: A choice and a relationship.
One huge goal of eating intuitively is to cultivate a relationship of nourishment with your body and to choose what you want to eat based on that relationship.
It's not a diet.
It's not about eating only when you're hungry and stopping as soon as you're full.
It's not about following a list of rules or regulations to the tee.
It's not about doing what everybody else is doing.
And, intuitive eating is not about eating #allthethings you weren't allowed to have previously.
Instead, intuitive eating is about finding what leaves you feeling good physically, emotionally and soulfully. Which means that WHAT you eat, and even how much you eat, will evolve all the time. Intuitive eating is about cultivating a relationship with your body, so that you can recognize these things that leave you feeling good -- and be willing to listen.
As you work to grow and nurture this relationship with your body and yourself, you'll understand that it's not the end of the world if for some reason you can't get what would leave you feeling good OR you simply choose not to.
You'll understand that just because you choose to eat a piece of cake on your birthday (or enjoy cookies, or wine or anything else on any day of the year)... it doesn’t mean you don’t value your health. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about what goes in your mouth or how that food affects your body.
It just might mean you are open to exploring every piece of the puzzle when it comes to how you feel.
(5) EXTEND THAT RELATIONSHIP TO EVERY OTHER AREA OF LIFE.
To the products you put on your skin.
We're coming full circle here... because, as we talked about in Step #1, these areas of life impact not only how you feel but also how effectively what you eat is digested in the body.
This is important because... Why do you want to eat a certain way? Sure, for medical reasons, but dive deeper. Why do you want to eat paleo, gluten-free, or Vegan?
Most likely, it's because you want to feel better, to alleviate the symptoms you're experiencing and because you BELIEVE eating this type of way will help you get there. (P.S. That belief is a really important piece of the puzzle. It's another story for another time, but all you need to know now is that you must BELIEVE what you are doing will actually help.)
All of these other areas in your life will affect how you feel and how foods will leave you feeling. This is due in part to stress and how stress manifests in the body. (Remember, stress might show up not as a sense of direct overwhelm, but rather as fear, depression, anxiety or panic.) The problem with chronic stress is that it signals the body to enter the "flight or fight" response. In this response, it's harder to enjoy food, digest food and obtain all possible nutrients from that food.
This means that, as explained by Marc David through The Psychology of Eating, the metabolic value of a food is influenced by factors outside of the actual food -- things like relaxation, pleasure and quality all play a role.
We want to look at WHO we are as eaters -- and HOW we're showing up to our lives and our plates. We want to nourish every area of life, to embrace more of the relaxation response and less of the stress response, as much and as often as possible.
WHAT HAPPENS AS WE PRACTICE THE MERGE METHOD?
We realize that it's not really the “diet” that’s wrong. We are able to become (if we still want to become) one of those people who can follow a "diet", like the autoimmune protocol or gluten-free, and be just fine. We get to decide if we're mentally, emotionally and soulfully ready for something that looks restrictive. We have a choice to make concerning the diet best for our lifestyles and our bodies. We get to decide if a specific plan is too stressful for the season of life we're in (such as recovery or big transition) — or if it simply doesn’t agree with what we believe.
We don't have rely on willpower any longer.
We never have to turn down another party with or friends.
We don't miss out conversations because we're too busy actively ignoring a plate of cookies.
At the same time, we get to optimize our chances for healing by living in accordance with the way of eating we most believe will get us there.
In essence, we find freedom.
If you've read all the way to the end of this blog post, then I invite you to take the next step and put The MERGE Method into practice! To explore self-care and potential triggers. To let go of diet mentality once and for all. To see what a relationship with your body might look like. And what it means to reject the rules we've been taught for so long.
If you want to learn more about Split Health Stress, here's a piece of my story being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at 14 and 7 months later with an eating disorder.
Then, when you're ready to learn everything there is to know about the "antidote" to split health stress (& how you can feel good not eating foods rather than deprived), snag your Wellness Boulevard membership to gain access to one of my most favorite videos: The Merge Method, a 5-step process to eat *any* way without feeling restricted.
Once you become a member, you will receive immediate access to materials that can help you feel better in days and weeks... rather than months and years. I bring this up because it took me over 10 years to figure this stuff out... 10 years of frustration, exhaustion, and feelings of failure. And basically? I'd really love to shorten that learning curve for you.