Here’s how I learned that my rigid commitment to being “healthy” was making me anything but.
In the winter of 2003, right after I graduated from college, I was struggling with a series of symptoms that seem increasingly common these days: fatigue, brain fog, digestive troubles, abnormal liver tests, and a period that had been missing for about a year.
None of the medical doctors I visited could figure out what was going on. Blood tests, physical exams, and even a brain scan all came back normal. Although I had recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, my symptoms continued even after I’d started on a medication that brought my thyroid levels back into the normal range. The digestive issues got diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but that didn’t explain the missing period or the other non-gut-related ailments.
Clearly something was going on beyond my thyroid, but no one could tell me what.
The quest for answers wore on for years, through a tangled forest of false diagnoses (gluten sensitivity, polycystic ovarian syndrome, insulinresistance). I was understandably frustrated, but I also became fascinated by the science—or lack thereof—on the conditions I thought I had. Around 2005, I started to focus my career as a journalist on food and nutrition, largely in an attempt to master my own unexplained health issues. I believed that food was medicine, and that I needed to learn how to use it in order to heal myself—and to help others in the same boat.
These mysterious health problems weren’t the only reason for my sudden interest in food and nutrition. Looking back now, I realize that my relationship to food and eating had changed dramatically ever since my junior year of college, when I became intensely focused on losing weight. I can trace it back to the summer of 2002 (a year and a half before those mysterious symptoms landed me in several doctor’s offices). Since then I’d been restricting my calorie and carb intake and overexercising in a never-ending effort to shrink my body. But pretty soon my daily calorie counting, obligatory workouts, and “sensible” portions of “healthy” low-carb food led to nightly binges on all the things I’d been denying myself—cookies, chips, bread, candy.
At my most desperate, when I’d banished nearly all carbs and gluten from the house, I would binge on raw gluten-free pancake batter and maple syrup straight from the bottle. The following day I’d resolve to eat “better” and exercise harder, and the cycle would repeat.
At the time it never occurred to me that this pattern itself was the problem. Although I desperately wanted the binges to stop, I couldn’t see how my weight-loss efforts were triggering them in the first place. I thought the restrictive eating and overexercise were just what it meant to have a “healthy lifestyle,” and that I had to compensate for my “failures” to adhere to that lifestyle by dieting and exercising even harder. In my life up until that point, all I’d ever known of nutrition and fitness was what I’d picked up from the diet culture we live in: that “being healthy” means depriving yourself of the foods you want, taking a no-pain-no-gain approach to physical activity, and keeping a close watch on the scale. I equated these dieting behaviors with taking my health seriously. I truly didn’t see my lifestyle as problematic—and it seemed no one else did, either.
I was so wedded to these behaviors that friends and family began to take notice and compliment my dietary discipline. Increasingly, people were interested in my opinion on nutrition—both because I covered those topics as a journalist and because I seemed like such a healthy eater. And so I started giving advice to family and friends about how to eat. I never mentioned my nightly binges, of course; my nutrition advice was aspirational, based on the “clean” way I ate when I wasn’t bingeing.
Meanwhile my health issues continued. Even though I was getting examined and tested routinely, none of my doctors suspected that my relationship with food could be the issue because I never looked emaciated, the way people with eating disorders are almost always portrayed in popular culture. Although my weight was lower than my body can comfortably sustain, I was still in the “normal” body-mass index (BMI) category, and so my health care providers never saw anything wrong (which is just one of the many problems with using BMI as a measure of health).
In all that time, while my doctors were asking me about my stress levels and alcohol consumption and bowel habits and whether or not I was eating gluten, none of them ever asked me about how I was eating—and in reality I was incredibly disordered about food.
It is shocking to consider that, for pretty much the whole time that I was struggling with disordered eating, I was working in jobs where I wrote and spoke about food from positions of relative authority. First it was as a journalist covering food and nutrition for national magazines and respected websites. Then as a nutritionist in community-health settings while I finished my graduate degree in public health nutrition and went through the many steps to get my registered dietitian’s license.
By day, as a journalist and nutritionist, I extolled the virtues of whole and unprocessed foods, spread the gospel of the gluten-free diet, and taught people how to read nutrition labels and cut back on calories and fat. By night I binged uncontrollably on forbidden processed foods, tumbled down internet rabbit holes researching my ongoing health issues, and spent hours in the health-food store agonizing over whether to get the local or the organic kale, the industrial vegan milk or the sustainable cow’s milk. I was consumed by thoughts of food, weight, and health.
I knew the bingeing was a problem, but I still wasn’t connecting it to my restrictive and obsessive behaviors with food. I didn’t see that the out-of-control eating episodes were a direct result of the “healthy” (restrictive) behaviors I was engaging in the rest of the time, and I thought the way to stop the bingeing was to exert more control over my eating and exercise. I still saw those controlling behaviors as completely normal, rational parts of a healthy lifestyle. They felt like part of my job—because in a way they were. Especially at the time—in the aughts and early 2010s—it felt to me, a journalist and nutritionist, as though the fields of media and nutrition rewarded rigid, strict thinking about food and health. And yet all that attention to food politics and the minutiae of nutrition science undoubtedly worsened my relationship with food and my overall well-being—just as it did for dozens of other dietitians and nutrition journalists I know.
Of course, not everyone in the field of nutrition media and dietetics can relate to having had a disordered relationship with food, but among the professionals in my orbit—many of whom now advocate intuitive eating and speak out about diet culture—it’s a pretty common experience.
Laura Thomas, now a registered nutritionist in the U.K., started a wellness blog after finishing her Ph.D. in nutrition science, and it triggered many of the same disordered eating patterns for her as the ones I experienced. As she told me on my podcast, Food Psych, “I would spend all day meticulously making and photographing all these wellness-y foods that didn’t have oil and didn’t have this and didn’t have that and blah blah blah blah. And then I’d binge my face off in the evening, and I would wonder why. I was projecting this illusion of control and wellness, and it was just pure illusion.”
In another Food Psych interview, Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct and a fellow journalist who covered food politics and nutrition in the years when I was struggling, said she didn’t realize until much later that what she thought of as wellness was actually just dieting. “We had this idea that if you just switch out and eat whole grains, or make these other changes, it’s going to change everything,” she said of herself and her fellow journalists. “But we were all still…trying to make [people’s] bodies smaller.’”
Dietitian Emily Fonnesbeck, who now practices from a non-diet perspective but struggled with restrictive eating and overexercise early in her career, told me in her Food Psych episode, “I stayed in [a] functionally dysfunctional relationship with food and exercise for probably five or six years. It was super easy for me to fly under the radar, especially because I was a dietitian. Like, I could be anal about food, right? And just be one of those [people] that was super into fitness and eating really ‘clean.’”
Many years later, when I started working as a dietitian in the eating-disorders field, I came to realize it was never the gluten (or the carbs, or the processed food) causing my health issues—it was the disordered eating. The pursuit of wellness had made me extremely unwell, both physically and mentally.
Indeed, symptoms like fatigue, difficulty concentrating, missing periods, IBS, bloating, and other digestive troubles are all common reactions to disordered eating. And if the cause of those issues is actually disordered eating behaviors, then addressing those behaviors is often the first step in feeling better.
Fortunately that’s what ended up happening for me. I ultimately was able to recover via a long and winding path that involved some great therapy (which I was privileged enough to be able to afford) and a lot of self-help (hello, Intuitive Eating), and I went on to build my career around helping people heal from disordered eating. Today it’s been about six years since I’ve binged, overexercised, or restricted my eating in any way, and my period is regular; my liver enzymes are normal; my IBS only flares up in times of extreme stress; and I’m no longer fatigued or brain-foggy, as long as I get enough sleep and take my thyroid meds consistently.
But I’ll never forget how easy it was for my disorder to disguise itself as wellness, or how the same nutrition advice I was giving out for a living had secretly turned my own relationship with food into a nightmare. Of course, not everyone who espouses certain wellness beliefs necessarily has an unhealthy relationship with food or their body. But disordered eating (including eating disorders) is far more common than it might seem in wellness culture: In the U.S. alone, 30 million adults of all ages and genders have eating disorders.
I’m incredibly grateful that I somehow managed to make it into the 25 percent who don’t struggle with those issues, and I work hard to keep it that way. I’ve learned that for me, trying to follow the rules of wellness ends up doing far more harm than good. Instead, I’ve found that my best guide when it comes to eating isn’t some outside source; it’s connection with my own hunger, satisfaction, needs, and desires—an innate wisdom that we’re all born with but that sadly gets stripped away from too many of us through diet culture and that we often have to fight valiantly to reclaim.
In my professional life, I no longer give prescriptive advice about what to eat, or write articles that stoke fear around particular kinds of food. Instead I’ve learned how to guide people in breaking down internalized diet-culture beliefs and exploring for themselves what foods they find satisfying and sustaining. And when I help people recover from disordered eating, I highlight the cultural roots of their issues and let them know they’re not alone—because back when I was struggling, that’s what I wish someone had told me.