Elimination Diets & Disordered Eating

Cover of Zine 7 - Elimination DietsElimination diets are a helpful diagnostic tool for identifying food allergies and intolerances. I recommend them fairly often to clients for various health issues. To streamline the process of explaining an elimination diet, I have written a how-to zine which can be found in my educational resources, Issue #7. In the writing of this, I interviewed a number of friends who’ve gone through the process to hear about their outcomes. It was a common theme to hear about elimination diets leading to and/or triggering disordered eating, or full-blown eating disorders. So I wanted to highlight the connection in this blogpost.

My friend Audra Locicero, of Beautyberry Apothecary, shared her own experience, from which we can learn a lot…

Beginning in my early 20s, I started to experience a variety of health issues that felt oddly out of place for my age. These included a lyme disease infection, gut dysbiosis, and chronic inflammation, and manifested as fatigue, depression, anxiety, digestive issues, brain fog, headaches, and joint and muscle pain. Determined to live a life less encumbered by pain and illness, I decided to adopt a variety of healing diets as a way to address the source and the symptoms I was experiencing. My knowledge of herbs and nutrition and my general worldview, as well as the guidance from various health practitioners at the time, led me to look to food as both a root cause of imbalance and a source of healing.

The specifics of the way I ate transformed over time, but almost always included the elimination of gluten, processed sugar, and alcohol. I took those three ingredients out of my diet entirely for about four years. I also experimented a great deal with the GAPS diet*, abiding by it for long stretches of time intermittently. This included the addition of bone broth daily (which overall I think was very nourishing and am still fond of today). For some time, this way of eating felt really good – I felt that I was in control of a major factor in what was keeping me unwell. Overtime however, in an attempt to assuage the symptoms that were ever-increasingly plaguing me, digestive upset in particular, I began to eliminate more and more things from my diet, eventually removing all grains, dairy, fruit, starchy vegetables, legumes, raw vegetables, nuts, and certain fats. I was left with bone broth, and cooked meat and vegetables. I ate in this way for about four months before I crashed and burned, and eventually saw the light. This was a really dark time. All I could think about was the foods I was not allowed to eat, all day, everyday. I avoided things I previously loved like sharing meals with family and friends and going out to eat. I lost a ton of weight and my period, too. All the while, my digestion, the very thing I was eating to support, was suffering more and more.

Somehow, in a stroke of enlightenment, or more likely a deep survival instinct, I was able to see my situation for what it was: an eating disorder. I almost immediately began to eat whatever I wanted and all of my symptoms improved. I gained all my weight back and more, my menstrual cycle regulated, and my digestion improved, too. I often joke that I turned cheesy pasta into 20% of my body mass in 3 months (the weight I lost and then gained back), a glorious feat! It was an incredible turn of events and I’m so grateful my body eventually had the wisdom to override my mind and seek what was best for me. Orthorexia, or an obsession with “healthy” eating, is not officially recognized as an eating disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the international authoritative handbook for health care professionals on the diagnosis of mental health disorders, but it’s my best guess that it will be in the near future. My presentation and experience read orthorexia to the T, which was both shocking and empowering.

In sharing my story with friends and family, I’ve learned that so many people deal with this type of disordered eating, women especially. What I know now about myself (and the disorder, too) is that I don’t have the mental constitution to eat in such a rigorously restrictive way for such a long stretch of time. While I don’t have an official OCD diagnosis, I know that I’m someone who deals with obsessive thought patterns, anxiety, and perfectionism, and have for as long as I can remember. While some people may be able to maintain an elimination diet for a lifetime even, I believe that great care must be taken before suggesting such a diet to people with a known history of OCD, eating disorder, or anxiety, as it has the potential to do more harm than good. I do not wish to entirely discredit the practice of eating a prescribed healing diet, dabbling in elimination diets, etc, as I think they can have great value for many people; there is no one size fits all approach to healing. I simply hope that through experiences like mine we can become more well-informed, compassionate citizens of the world. This is the responsibility of health professionals especially – herbalists, in my case, but doctors, acupuncturists, and nutritionists, too.

So, what happened to the original symptoms I was hoping to address with these diets many years ago? Some have fallen away, some remain, and some new ones have taken their place. Now, three years later, I eat whatever I want, mostly. I limit gluten and processed sugar for the most part, and don’t have much interest in alcohol, but overall I am so much less restrictive. In some ways, I feel like I withstood the most rigorous elimination diet of all time, and came out the other end with real information about what is good for my body (for example: dairy and gluten-free grains are no issue; gluten and sugar make me feel inflamed in large, continuous doses). Unfortunately, even limiting certain things to a few times a week is still a slippery slope for me mentally, as I imagine is the case in most eating disorders. At this point, I still have to be very cautious about the way I frame the value of various foods in my mind (say, labeling something as healthy or unhealthy) and I can’t meddle in any prescribed diets. I stick to these boundaries as an act of kindness to my mental health. For now, it is a line I still cannot cross, but I hope that it eases in time. If I chose to eat something, regardless of what it may be, I have to trust that it’s nourishing me.

Through these personal experiences I’ve learned a lot. Being an herbalist, folks sometimes ask me for advice on what they should eat. These days I often say: eat whole foods, in variety; just about everything is ok in moderation; and please, eat with your loved ones, for health AND for joy.”

Thank you Audra, for sharing your experience.

*GAPS diet: “Gut and Psychology Syndrome”, by Natasha Campbell-McBride, 2010

Botany as Therapy

The following is an excerpt from my newly updated Zine #3: “Botany in a Handout”, which can be freely accessed and downloaded on the Educational Resources page.

 

To interact with a study as a therapy is to say that it has healing effects on the psyche.  To me, botany is much more than a study that appeases my curiosity; it is a practice that soothes my agitated nerves, grounds my fidgeting body, and connects me with the mysterious source of life. Along with ecology, tracking, wilderness skills, homesteading competence, anti-colonization work, and mind-body exploration, botany can be a very important aspect of the re-wilding journey.

Plants take up a lot of room here on planet Earth, and no matter how much pavement we lay down, they will always pop up through the cracks to say “HI”.  A common response from civilized humans is a foot in the face, a fresh pour of concrete, or a spritz of poison.  It is unfortunate on many levels.  In our culture, we face debilitating levels of stress and depression, and there is much to learn about self care and community connection. I propose that plants can, and must, play a pivotal role in the human journey towards sanity and health.  I am not referring to herbal medicine (though that certainly has a lot to offer), rather I am writing about botanical awareness; the mere acknowledgement of plants on a daily basis.

A few springs ago, I spent time in an East African Maasai village; my first experience outside of western culture.  It is an area where ancestral ties and traditional ways are still intact, like an artery pulsing through the community.  In this place, despite the growing invasion of western culture, people still carry a general knowledge of the plants living amongst them.  Even if they don’t use a plant for food or medicine, they can identify it, at the very least. I had not seen this collective ecological consciousness before, and do not see it where I live.

Prunus angustifolia
What I have seen, over and over, regardless of location, culture, or age, is the universal eye sparkle when an individual experiences the amazement of botanical awareness.  Perhaps they really see a flower, with all of its reproductive goods, for the first time.  Or they feel the exhilarating terror after tasting the alkaloidal tingle of Prickly Ash bark.  This eye sparkle indicates a childlike wonder that brings innocent joy into the world; something we could certainly use more of. Our eyes dull much too quickly when they are always reflecting concrete.
I have spent time with many plant nerds (which come in all forms, might I add), and repeatedly, I hear stories of pure magic.  Sometimes people hear profound messages from plants (and no…not just “psychoactive plants”).  I personally have never heard a plant speak, per say, though I think that consciously being in the presence of plants helps me to hear my own inner voice more clearly.  More than counseling, what I receive from plants and wilderness is generosity, ease, delight, and clarity.  One afternoon, I was exploring the hills of Vermont.  I spotted a deer trail and, practicing my tracking skills, I came upon a beautiful doe.  I stalked her for less than ten seconds before startling her with my clumsy footfalls, and she took off over the peak of a steep hill.  When I climbed to the top, I looked down to see, as far as my sight would allow, a forest full of giant Reishi mushrooms on old Hemlocks. Some were bigger than my head! I could feel my eyes sparkling. For me, this was magic. I harvested a few mushrooms and brewed a year’s worth of medicine from the fungal gift, though I am pretty sure the journey of discovering them was the most potent therapy of all.
 
The industrialized world is loud, but the magic of the natural world is held in quietude.  When the days are fast-paced, the best medicine really is terribly cliche: stop and smell the roses, or the camphor leaves, or taste the pineapple guava flowers, watch a squirrel nibble on a hickory nut, or launch Jewelweed seeds from their pods for thirty full minutes.  Stop and acknowledge that we humans are part of an intricate network of connections, of checks and balances, of cooperation.  Perhaps then, the pull of social media, the draw of the screen, the demands of the boss, the shitty traffic, and the unending task list will seem less like the center of the universe.  Maybe, finally, important things will become the center of our universe.  Rather than trying to colonize another planet, maybe we can pay attention to the one being destroyed beneath out feet. Perhaps utilizing botany as therapy, humans might start considering the health of their habitats as the most important necessity.  For when the habitat is healthy, the community is healthy; and when the community is healthy, so too is the individual.
 

Field Guides for Central FL

The other day I was driving with a friend, got a little lost, and pulled out an atlas to re-orient myself.  My companion was shocked, “You know how to use that?!”  In this age of techno-overload, we are losing some very basic skills, like reading a map.  Our dependence on the internet is robbing us of our instinctual awareness and problem-solving skills.  Though I am only approaching 30 years of life, I often feel more akin to my grandparents than my peers, thinking, “Gosh, what are the kids up to these days!? So much has changed!”  One consequence I fear is the loss of field guides in the plant-lover’s life.   Using a field guide is like a “choose your own adventure” book. (Does anyone remember the choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps?! So good…).  Most field guides have a key; the key is where you sort through a list of possibilities; does the plant have 3 petals or 5 petals? Opposite leaves or alternate leaves? Is it growing in rich soil by a river or on a sandy hill? All of these options guide you to accurate identification, and you have thus “keyed out” a plant.  It is very satisfying.  Alas, with the internet, people can just take a picture and post it on facebook or plug it into an app, and instantly the answer will be handed to them.  I wonder if this new techno-dependence diminishes our interactions and intimacy with the plants. Perhaps you will miss that dynamic patch of fuzz on the underside of the leaf, or the shimmering stomata observed through a loupe. And it may seem too obvious to even bring up, but…the internet is often wrong!  So this post is encouragement to engage with field guides, and more specifically, this post is a commentary on 2 books I find helpful for identifying plants in Central Florida…

Feelings of trepidation and doubt consume me when deciding which field guides to carry on a plant walk.  What if I bring the wrong book and am unable to identify a plant that I need to know?! What if I bring too many books and feel weighed down?  What if I bring a book of trees, but then come across some interesting fern I’ve never seen before?!  So many things to consider.  After much experimentation, I have settled on two books that feel like the best possible combination for most plant walks in central Florida.  These books are Florida Wildflowers, by Walter Kingsley Taylor, and Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida, Third Edition, by Richard P Wunderlin and Bruce F Hansen.  Along with these books, I carry a loupe for magnification and perhaps a camera, just in case I am still unable to properly ID a specimen.

Florida Wildflowers is a beautiful book that categorizes plants by their habitats.  My teacher, Juliet, gifted me with this book when I moved south, and it provided a foundation for me to feel at home in a new land.  Each plant community found in Florida is described in the beginning of the book; noting its overall appearance, location, common plants found there, and it’s current state of existence given the rise of development and loss of natural habitats.  Then the book is divided into sections where a good number of plants in each habitat are described in detail, with growing habit and range, its native and/or endemic status, and a picture or two is included.  The pictures are of excellent quality.  This book does not include a key that guides your identification of the plant, rather it groups plants in the context of their community.  When I arrive in a new area, I read about that specific plant community before walking through it and then I reference the book when I see a plant that I previously read about.  Sometimes I also find myself trying to identify a plant by flipping through the pictures.  This is probably frowned upon by many botanists, but I often find it to be less tedious than the key that I will talk about next.

Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida, Third Edition is a brilliant book that can be used to key out nearly any plant in the entire state.  It is very technical in it’s language, and therefore precise and clear in its distinctions between species.  In my copy, I bookmarked the glossary and I refer to it nearly every time I open the book.  There are no pictures, which is why it can be helpful to cross-reference the previous book. This key takes commitment and patience to work with, but no other field guide matches the comprehensive documentation found within.

Carrying these two books on my long treks in the woods and prairies has not only strengthened my muscles (they weigh 6lbs…be sure to have a backpack with a waist strap!), but has also strengthened my connection to the plants growing around me.  In my opinion, the intricate details of plant species in the Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida compliments the broad assessment of whole habitats in Florida Wildflowers.  The perfect field guide does not and will never exist.  Nature is too spectacular to be pinned down in one book.  So with a good variety of books, patience to wait for the plant to reveal all its’ secrets through the seasons, along with some botany nerds for friends, and maybe the occasional internet search, identification is possible with thorough dedication that stems from a deep love for the natural world. So turn off your smart phones, and crack open your field guides!

Blissfully observing the apically toothed, sparsely pubescent leaves of Myrica cerifera, with shimmering glandular dots..

PS. For a formal introduction to using field guides, consider taking the Intro to Botany class, offered in the spring.  In this class we cover the basic language of botany, anatomy and physiology of plants, and practice keying out our green friends.