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SALT LAKE CITY — When we think about nourishing our bodies through food, many different ideas come to mind. Our motives for choosing or avoiding certain foods can begin with a desire to lose weight or alter body composition.
Eating in a specific way may also be initiated based on sensitivities, intolerances, or beliefs around food. All these decisions start off as a well-intentioned health pursuit. However, they can easily become more intense, take up a lot of your mental space, and impact your digestion.
Food anxiety and mental health
Everyone thinks about food often. In fact, Dr. Brian Wansink from Cornell University claims that we make about 200 decisions about food each day. When an individual starts to experience overwhelming thoughts about food, creates strict food rules, or constantly worries about the impact of their food choices on their body, they may develop food anxiety or disordered eating behaviors. Such behaviors can have a profound impact on overall health.
According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million Americans experience an anxiety disorder in any given year. It is normal to experience occasional anxiety. However, anxiety that persists, feels uncontrollable, overwhelming and interferes with your daily activities is important to seek treatment for.
Some people are more prone to anxiety than others. For an individual that is highly anxious, ridged rules or conforming to strict diets can exacerbate anxiety. Conversely, an individual who once experienced a healthy relationship with food can experience anxiety around eating because of such intense guidelines.
One study conducted in 2004 found that two-thirds of people with eating disorders suffer from an anxiety disorder. Furthermore, 42 percent of those individuals had developed an anxiety disorder during childhood, well before the onset of their eating disorder.
Someone who is seeking treatment for both an eating disorder and anxiety may have experienced compulsive rituals connected to food, weighing every bit of food, cutting food into tiny pieces, or binge eating.
Our society tends to congratulate and admire certain behaviors toward food and exercise, such as daily intense workouts, calorie or macro counting, following popular diets such as keto or paleo, calculated meal prep, and avoidance of perceived unhealthy foods such as dairy, grains, or sugar. Taking a closer look at such behaviors may lead to a realization of obsessive and disordered thoughts about food. These types of behaviors should not be idolized. In fact, these types of behaviors can negatively impact your mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Anxiety and digestion
Many individuals who suffer from anxiety have a highly sensitive digestive tract because the colon is controlled by the central nervous system, which responds to stress. These individuals may experience abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. They may look to food as the culprit and engage in elimination diets to alleviate symptoms.
When professionally guided and supported, some of these dietary practices can help. However, it is important to distinguish between a food sensitivity and an anxiety disorder. If an individual continues to remove food from their diet, they may be creating a pseudo food intolerance.
If you are prone to anxiety, seek treatment for the disorder. Find strategies that help you cope without using food. While proper nutrition is crucial for your overall health, it is not the most important. Solely, focusing on what you eat can add stress to your life.
Changing your mindset and relationship with food in a diet centric world is not a simple task. It requires an understanding of and commitment to accepting all foods and figuring out what foods in what amounts and combinations feel good in your body. It is essential to find professional support to help you identify, understand, and shift your thoughts, and find helpful behaviors.
Devrie is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. You can learn more by following @happilyfed on Instagram and happilyfed.life
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