Eating Disorders and Gut Health

By Ayanna DeVance. Reviewed by Lauren Ranley, MS, RD, LDN

Eating disorders are multifaceted, and determining the best treatment contributes to the complexity. Stress, both physically and mentally, related to eating disorders affects the body and the psyche. Anxiety, depression, negative body image, low self-esteem, and biological factors, such as gastrointestinal health, are vital contributors to eating disorders. When eating problems are not treated, the gut suffers.

How eating disorders can impact your digestive system

The body has two different types of organs: vital organs and non-vital organs. Organs like your GI system are regarded as “nonvital,” but your heart, lungs, and kidneys are deemed “vital.” Inadequate food consumption alters the body’s balance of microorganisms in your gut, resulting in low levels of bacteria, harming the immune system and worsening symptoms of IBS and other gastrointestinal disorders.

When faced with food restriction, the stomach is the first organ affected. Gastro (stomach) + paresis (paralysis) can result from heavy restriction and cause an unusually full feeling after eating. In normal digestion, the stomach muscle uses a wave-like motion to move food into the small intestine. However, with caloric restriction, this wave-like movement is halted, causing challenges like fullness, nausea, and bloating after eating. Individuals with negative body image are aware of their bodily changes, specifically as it relates to eating. Bloating and fullness after eating can be distressing and impede a person’s ability to recover. Additionally, bodily changes, specifically in highly scrutinized areas, can lead one to restrict intake further. As a result, malnutrition arises due to the body’s attempt to conserve nutrients for vital organs.

Dysbiotic Gastritis

One of the implications of eating disorders is a lack of diversity in the diet. The balance of bacteria in the gut and digestive enzymes are impacted, potentially worsening or inducing food intolerances. For example, if you eliminate dairy from your diet because you are following a diet trend, your body will stop producing the enzymes required to digest dairy. But, if you decide to eat ice cream one day, you will most likely feel ill, reinforcing your phobia of this item.

What can one do to heal their gut?

Eating disorder-related digestive issues are usually reversible. Start by unfollowing toxic social media accounts that feed the eating disorder voice, eating regular meals, focusing on various foods, managing stress, and managing symptoms. Gastrointestinal problems frequently surface during the healing stages of recovery, resulting in uneasiness or stress and a desire to increase disordered eating patterns. Be aware that you may experience some GI symptoms when beginning to increase food intake. Symptoms tend to improve significantly if you continue to consume enough calories, have a well-balanced diet, and can handle food-related worry and tension.

Foods to promote healthy gut bacteria include:

·   Whole grains

·   Fruits and vegetables

·   Nuts and seeds

·   Dark chocolate

·   Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso

·   Prebiotics

The promoted solution to improving gut health often involves restriction of certain foods or food groups. For individuals who are battling an eating disorder, the suggestion to cut out certain foods from the diet can be triggering or even strengthen the eating disorder voice. Instead, focus on including a variety of foods and eating well-balanced meals. For those dealing with frequent and loose bowel movements, a low-fiber diet may be recommended. On the other hand, anyone suffering from chronic constipation may require a high-fiber diet. Just as every individual’s recovery is different, as is their treatment.

Be sure to consult your doctor and dietitian about what will work best for you.