Fear of Food
I eat a limited diet for a number of years. I didn’t have a healthy relationship with food. I saw food as being unsafe. I was anxious about what I was eating, when I was eating, and the after-effects of eating on my digestion.
My digestive issues included excessive bloating, needing to go to the bathroom up to 16 times a day, and crippling pain making it difficult to stand up straight or at other times challenging to reach to put my socks on. I had constant physical discomfort and felt like I needed to empty my bowels. If I wasn’t going too much and popping Imodium every week, I was clogged up. I felt embarrassed and tried to hide what felt like a taboo topic - now I find it much easier talking about poo, which really helped to let go of the shame - talking about those things we try to hide can be soo damn freeing!
I also realised that my headaches and migraines seemed to be linked to my digestion and I felt constantly exhausted. Mentally the pain and discomfort took their toll, along with the high levels of anxiety that I had around finding a bathroom, eating, and trying to sleep whilst in lots of pain and sweating. I shared more about my digestion story in #68 5 Ways to Balance Your Digestion.
When did the fear begin?
Focusing on my old fear of food, I’ve been thinking about when I started to analyse what I was eating. If I rewind to my teens I was worried about weight gain and calories, I began counting calories and looking at the sugar and fat content on the labels of foods. This data-driven approach took the enjoyment and intuitive feeling out of food. Back in the 90s low fat was very popular, with not much talk about healthy fats or the fact that we need some fat in our food intake. I remember I used to avoid putting butter on my bread to save on some fat and calories and I definitely wasn’t going to eat any nuts due to their high-fat content! Does anyone remember the cabbage soup diet? I never did this but I remember a friend who did!
In the noughties, I tried the Special K cereal for breakfast and lunch fad, which I remember eating whilst studying Business at Uni. Let's face it wouldn’t have been very nourishing for a busy and anxious uni student at the time. From an Ayurvedic lens this meal (if you can call it that), was cold and dry - that was definitely not going to help my bloating!
By my late teens, my digestive concerns were high and I had begun to fear eating certain foods, as I thought they may make me feel worse. I remember working in a newsagent when I was 16 years old and being conscious of my bloated stomach.
Enjoy audio? - listen to episode 76 My Fear of Food , over on The Beautifully Balanced Podcast.
Stuck on Restrictive Diets
Over the years I tried numerous elimination diets, which really restricted what I eat for a period of time to try and see if I was intolerant to wheat or dairy for example. I also tried a diet that focused on the level and type of fibre in my diet. None of these were conclusive of anything.
Eventually, I started on the fodmap diet recommended by a gastro consultant when I finally got taken seriously and got seen at the hospital. The fodmap plan did seem to offer some relief. It was meant to be a temporary thing to get my digestion back on track but being left to my own devices I remained on this restrictive diet for a number of years and it really did take me years to stop categorising my foods and eat almost anything I want. I was so used to seeing foods as good or bad/safe or unsafe. I continued on the fodmap diet even though my digestion still wasn’t right for fear of losing control and my symptoms getting worse!
Every meal time was stressful because I would analyse all the ingredients, and I would feel on-edge and unsafe about eating, it was especially stressful eating at friends, takeaways, and restaurants because I couldn’t control the ingredients. On top of worrying about what I was eating, I would be constantly worrying about the timings of when I eat. If I didn’t eat for a period of time then when I did eat I would get terrible pains, I believed food was the only thing that helped to manage my migraines so I panicked about not eating regularly or eating the wrong thing and triggering one.
As a secondary school teacher, I would worry about what I was eating for lunch in the 30-minute break we had, in which I needed to get out of the previous classroom, pop the toilet, head to the canteen to eat, and keep an eye on the students, get back to the office to get my stuff and dash off to my next classroom before the students got there so I can set up my starter activity that would help to get them settled as they arrived! Once in the classroom, it’s difficult to go to the bathroom, lots of people don't realise the inflexibility of a teacher's lifestyle - so I worried about making the right choices over lunch!
When it came to eating at restaurants I would first fret about the time the meal was booked for, if it was too late my acid would be bad, I’d likely feel light-headed, I’d worry about getting a migraine and the discomfort I’d have after would affect my sleep. I used to sit in a restaurant, looking at the menu and wondering what ingredients were included in a pasta dish or what vegetables would come out on the side of some chicken. I’d be sat wondering where the toilets were and how private they were if my stomach felt upset. I can remember at its worst sitting down with a group of friends and I had decided the safest meal was the salmon. My friend ordered the salmon and it was the last one. It totally threw me and I felt like I couldn’t breathe and had to go to the toilet and calm down. I ordered something else for fear of looking strange if I didn’t order some food but I didn’t even want to eat it so I picked at it.
When at other people's houses, I’d feel extremely uncomfortable specifying my needs and I just wanted to be easy. I didn’t want to appear fussy or high maintenance! I’d hate saying about certain ingredients, luckily some friends would check with me whether I can eat certain things and that helped to put me at ease a little but the food was out of my control and I didn’t like that! I also used to really worry about portion sizes and not eating enough and fretting I’d get a migraine or not have enough energy to try and cope with the day. I remember being on a yoga training in India in 2017 and I ordered extra potatoes with all my meals for fear of not eating enough! It was also all vegetarian food and I was very much used to eating meat, so this unknown element sent my anxiety up too!
The Change Point
Having lived analysing and worrying about food in various capacities for years, a change point for me was when I moved to Japan in 2016. I couldn’t read the food labels, I couldn’t find all of my usual foods. I had no choice but to let go of trying to control and worry about the ingredients I was eating. I had to try and focus on the opportunities of experiencing new tastes for example, rather than the threats I perceived were there around new foods!
Over the almost 2 years that I lived there, I began to realise that my digestion was less about the foods that I eat. As I began practicing yoga and discovering more about the mind-body connection I began to understand that much of my digestive issues were stress and anxiety related. It made sense that some of my worst symptoms were experienced when I felt really uncomfortable in a work environment I spent about 40 hours a week in! Whilst I was still under bowel investigation and trialing steroids (that I believe only made me feel worse), and I moved to Manchester and was out of my comfort zone doing my post-grad in Education - my digestion still didn’t feel as bad as my previous job! It really is amazing what can happen in a physiological state when we are stressed and anxious and do not have the self-care to regulate the nervous system and calm and ground us!
Ayurveda and Food
Personally, I think for around 20 years I was concerned with food, my weight, and my digestion. That is a whole lot of attention and energy and it wasn’t very enjoyable!!
Now at 37 years old I eat most things and enjoy eating out. Generally, my digestion is regular and bloating is very infrequent rather than every day. My mind feels more settled and I no longer worry about migraines! I feel freer to listen to my body and its cues and eat when I need to rather than panicking about eating!
When I first heard of Ayurveda and that certain foods were better for certain mind-body types back in 2017, I was not in a place to even consider this. I had only just managed to start eating 75% of foods since going onto the fodmap diet in around 2012 and was enjoying the headspace from it. I wasn’t about to start analysing what I was eating, or that was how I perceived it at the time anyway.
Today I use a lot of Ayurvedic principles to support the food choices that help me to feel good! I don't view it as restrictive but rather as making the choice to look after myself, I flipping enjoy that feeling. Food can be pleasurable, satisfying and nourishing without being complicated. It’s a very different quality of life having this sense of freedom around food and noticing and adapting as I need to. Interesting last week I started eating slightly green bananas that are drying - you can feel the dry sensation in the mouth as you eat one, which I’m sure is drying out my bowels a bit too making it harder to go - fun fact for you!
If you are suffering from digestive concerns and food anxiety, please know that you are not alone. It could be that by improving your anxiety in other areas of your life, your digestion will improve and in turn, your anxiety around digestion can begin to fade too! Ayurveda also offers ways to support your digestion, which will improve the gut-brain axis and also reduce anxiety. There can be a two-pronged approach because the body and mind are not separate and one impacts the other.
Ayurveda has a unique view of nutrition and I shall share more about this in my next solo episode. I found it fascinating and it makes so much sense!