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Nutritional Science, Health & Debunking Food Myths
Can debunking nutritional myths become a safety behaviour?
Earlier this summe, in my group coaching programme, we were discussing Orthorexia, nutritional myths and fear foods. Oftentimes, it’s been going something like this:
Person fears food X. Person wants proof food X isn’t ‘bad’ (bad often meaning ‘causes weight gain and/or disease’) so they can proceed eating it without guilt. 'Proof’ in this context would often mean scientific evidence food X isn’t ‘bad’ (does not cause weight gain and/or disease), and/or debunking articles who imply so.
I always find this puts me in an awkward situation as a practitioner.
On one hand, I do know the basics of human nutrition, especially in the context of eating disorder recovery. I know sugar is not as addictive as coke, and that the people who show the most ‘addictive-like’ behaviours towards sugary food are the people who restrict it. I know that eating saturated fat is not a fast-track ticket towards the hospital’s cardiology ward, and I know that especially in recovery, going all-in on the ice cream can even have physical benefits (for example: saturated fats from full-fat dairy products, can help restore lost periods). I have seen not only the mental benefits of an all-foods-fit approach, but also the physical ones.
(People in recovery genuinely improve their physical health through endless tubs of Ben & Jerry’s, because what is underlying their mental and physical health issues is food deprivation. Duh!).
I know food deprivation drives bingeing, and that the more you restrict a food, the more likely you are to binge on it. I know yoyo-dieting causes weight gain long-term, and I know that many of the health conditions we assume to be related to higher weights is actually related to yoyo-dieting and constant weight cycling. I know most diets fail. I know the healthiest thing to do is to implement all foods, in recovery and beyond. I know diet culture has taken nutritional science and ran with it for it’s own narratives; to make you feel like crap, and sell you the solution.
I know, I know.
Yet I sometimes find that the approach of endless reassurance, debunking and fact checks does not sit right with me as a consistent, long-term strategy, for a few reasons.
Firstly, oftentimes the underlying messaging is ‘this prevents weight gain’, as if weight gain is the worst thing that could happen (it’s not). For example: full-fat yoghurt is sometimes demonised because it has more fats and calories than low-fat/zero fat yoghurt. The ‘nutritional debunking’ approach (which is scientifically true!) is that full-fat yoghurt actually fills you up more and quicker, thus we see that people who consume full-fat dairy products does not necessarily consume more net calories over time or weigh more than those who consume low/no-fat dairy.
Fullness is more than amounts of food in your stomach, and your body knows the different between creamy, full-fat Turkish yoghurt versus a 0% Yoplait. Both are fine to eat, but obviously for an intuitive eater, the fullness cues will be set off sooner, and satiety will last longer, when consuming the ‘real deal’. Oftentimes, a yoyo-dieter will have five fat-free yoghurts in order to suppress its cravings for a full-fat yoghurt, ironically taking in more energy than if they just had what they craved in the first place.
See what I did there? I did a nutritional debunk™️. If you’re eating full-fat yoghurt right now, this might have made you breathe a sigh of relief. But why? Because I indirectly reassured you eating this food won’t cause more weight gain? Well, is weight gain really the worst thing that can happen, and something to spend our lives to avoid? Our bodies are supposed to change throughout our lives, and if you’re in recovery and under your natural set-point weight range, weight gain is not only good, but also essential. Did I just feed your eating disorder, or your recovery? That is up for discussion and interpretation, and I acknowledge it is individual.
Secondly, there is something to be said about the focus on ‘health’. Earlier in this post, I wrote that ‘eating saturated fat is not a fast-track ticket towards the hospital’s cardiology ward’, and although that is true, the ‘right’ nutrition isn’t necessarily a bullet-proof shield illness either. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy and taking efforts to be so, but we must also accept that it is not always fully in our locus of control. As someone with chronic illness, I’m a regular at the cardiology ward by now, and it is not due to nutritional causes (I have autonomic dysfunction with cardiovascular involvement due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and no amount of quinoa will fix my genetics). You are not morally better or worse depending on your physical health status, nor is it always preventable of your ‘fault’. And heck, even if it were someone’s ‘fault’, people deserve compassion and treatment.
You can spend your entire life dedicated to becoming the physically ‘healthiest’ version of yourself, only to realise you spent to much time trying to prolong your life without actually living (and enjoying) it, and with no guarantees this prolonging attempt actually works. In the context of an eating disorder, very often this desire to be ‘healthy’ is more about navigating and easing a crippling guilt around food, and feeling you can only eat if you do it ‘right’. That’s why Orthorexia can be about so much more than ‘health’, and also revolve around excessive focus on ethics, sustainability, budget, etc. Whatever floats your Orthorexia-boat.
Orthorexia recovery when you do have chronic illness of course adds a whole new layer, because suddenly there is a whole new level of ammunition and self-blaming, even for chronic illnesses where nutritional intervention is rather ineffective. The eating disorder may firmly hold onto the belief that somewhere out there is The Perfect Diet™️ that will cure your aliments when doctors failed to do so, and that you’re sick because you simply haven’t tried hard enough not to be. It is understandable: treatments for many chronic illnesses are limited, and people are often disbelieved (especially if they are women, a person of colour and/or in a bigger body). False prophets offering cures become very appealing.
The ED of course fails to identify itself as an illness with genuine mental and physical consequences, instead concealing itself as the cure. Navigating the management of flare-ups (beyond just food) without complete life restriction as someone w/ chronic illness can be complex and messy. The eating disordered person will tend to hyper-focus on potential nutritional interventions more than anything, even if ineffective of even harmful.
Ironically, chronic stress, loneliness and social isolation is more dangerous for your physical (yes, physical) and mental health than any food ever will be, and eating disorders surely worsen these. With this in mind, is really declining that barbecue, laughing, opening up and enjoying all foods with people you love and care about, in favour of a night in with your ‘ED safe’ quinoa salad, the ‘healthy’ option?
For some, debunking some basic nutritional myths might help them make more intuitive choices and help them trust their bodies, especially earlier in recovery or if very engulfed in a certain diet subculture (aka diet cult). For others, it can quickly turn into ‘orthorexia whack-a-mole’, where when one nutritional myth is debunked (with the sweet relief that follows), another pops up, needing to be debunked before you can proceed to eating. In short, it can become a safety behaviour. The trap of course is that nutritional science can be very contradictory, and you can usually find some kind of evidence that vaguely fits the narrative of your eating disorder if you look long and hard enough. People who are in the depts of the keto-jungle aren’t wandering blindly, they’re armed with studies and doctors and gurus (sometimes resembling cult leaders) crafting their maps and guidelines. Therefore, attaching too much to what a singular study (or doctor) said can be fallible - not to mention that for the lay person without a background in science and/or academia, differentiating between a good and bad study is not necessarily easy.
Instead, it might be more helpful to keep your eyes on your own plate. Realistically speaking, what measures are going to make your quality of life better? You’ve tried more restriction, and considering you’re currently reading ‘Let’s Recover’, we can assume restriction didn’t really improve your life quality. Is excluding more foods really going to help you? Is your eating disorder a source of great mental and physical wellbeing? No? Then anything that helps eliminate that will for you be the healthiest option, mentally and physically.
I want to end this post with a poem titled ‘If I Had My Life To Live Over’ by Nadine Stair (aged 85):
If I Had My Life to Live Over
If I had my life to live over
I'd dare to make more mistakes next time.
I'd relax. I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I'd
have fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I'm one of those people who live sensibly
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.
Oh, I've had my moments and if I had it to do over
again, I'd have more of them. In fact,
I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments.
One after another, instead of living so many
years ahead of each day.
I've been one of those people who never go anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.
If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot
earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.
If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.
Perhaps that’s what recovery (and life) is really about.