She goes to yoga and only shops at organic markets. She makes her own bone broth, vegetable juices, and paleo "treats" (because gut healing is good, and dairy and sugar are "bad").
She spends a small fortune on vitamins, probiotics and herbal supplements.
She is very health conscious, sometimes bordering on being obsessively so.
She has seen numerous health practitioners prior to seeing me.
And despite her utmost efforts to be healthy, she has long list of seemingly obscure health conditions. The list of signs and symptoms I see in these women goes something like this:
Headaches, migraines, intense cravings, cold hands and feet, sleep problems, rough dry skin, brittle hair, hair loss, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), dizziness, brain fog, low energy levels, low body temperature, constipation, low libido, bloating, indigestion, frequent need to urinate, anxiety, panic attacks, loss of muscle mass, heart palpitations, frequent colds and flu / thrush / UTIs / herpes outbreaks, unpredictable emotional swings, severe PMS, irregular periods, missing periods, infertility.
The woman in question usually doesn't have every single one of these (although some do), but she will have a significant number (around 80% or more) of them.
By the time they've come to see me, many of these women have attributed this long and baffling list of symptoms to candida. Or a food intolerance. Or simply "being too fat".
And they've come to the conclusion (via Google or some health guru) that the obvious solution is to embark upon yet another restrictive diet. Anti-candida, low-carb, paleo, keto, GAPS, SCD, vegan, intermittent fasting, and raw are the usual go-to's right now.
And herein lies the root of the problem.
The Big Thing most health-conscious people are missing (that's ruining their health)
The root of these women's problems is this: They are trying too hard to be healthy and as a result, they are eating too restrictively.
The biggest mistake I see women making today is trying too hard to be healthy.
Whether it's limiting carbs, fat, calories, or some food group deemed toxic or yeast-forming... these highly health-conscious women are UNDER eating in every sense of the word. And ironically, it's destroying their health.
Just to be clear, whilst anti-candida or gut healing protocols aren't primarily aimed at weight loss, they are almost without fail intrinsically restrictive and usually lead to an unhealthy calorie deficit. Thus they send the same "famine" message to the body as does your run-o'-the-mill, calorie-restricted weight loss diet. Damn.
Semi-starvation is the norm
The truth is, many women are in a state of semi-starvation and don’t even realise it.
Unfortunately, your body can't tell the difference between a restrictive diet (be it a calorie deficit for weight loss or cutting out food groups due a perceived food intolerance) and actual famine.
But there's now a new kid in town...
Enter The Wellness Diet Cycle
They may no longer be doing weekly-weigh-ins or counting calories, but the dieting thoughts and behaviours remain. “It’s not a diet” is very often a front for eating regimes that actually meet every criteria of a diet. Ways of eating to promote wellness fall squarely into this category.
To add insult to injury, these restrictive behaviours usually do not lead to health. They are literally starving us of vitality, energy, and LIFE.
Christy Harrison, host of the Food Psych Podcast sums it up perfectly:
“The Wellness Diet is my term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture that’s supposedly about “wellness” but is actually about performing a rarefied, perfectionistic, discriminatory idea of what health is supposed to look like. It’s not just about weight loss, although thinness is an essential part of The Wellness Diet’s supposed picture of health. (So is whiteness, and youth, and physical ability, and wealth.)”
- Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN
Of course I’m not saying that everything about The Wellness Diet is "bad". The basic concept of eating more whole foods and vegetables, and reducing our intake of environmental and drug-based toxins, all hold a great deal of value.
But The Wellness Diet goes beyond that. It focuses on perfectionist eating that divides foods into “good” and “bad”, “healthy” and “unhealthy”. Beyond the general and common sense premise of eating ample whole foods... imposing food rules, strict feeding windows, cutting out whole food groups and going days (or weeks!) subsisting on vegetable juice will not add to our health.
On the contrary, it is likely to subtract from it.
Physically, such rules – especially when followed for a significant length of time - create nutritional and caloric deficits, which in turn wreak havoc with our hormones, blunt our hunger and fullness cues, and deplete our energy.
Mentally, the rules of The Wellness Diet create deprivation, obsession, and black and white thinking, making them as unsustainable and mentally damaging as any Old School Diet.
You may be familiar with The Diet Cycle of yore - a series of self-perpetuating steps that begins with a desire to lose weight, followed by going on a weight loss diet, feeling hungry and deprived, a life stressor triggering us to fall off the wagon, feeling guilty and then starting another diet.
Here are the basic stages I see women now running through. Basically it's the new diet cycle: The Wellness Diet Cycle. This is how I see it play out:
Stage 1: Start a diet (any diet)
After all, diet is something we can directly control. It's much easier to target and "fix" our food, than to explore the deeper, messier things like emotional or spiritual issues, ammirite?
You jump on Google and stumble across some impressive looking dietary protocol online, or via a health guru. It convinces you that the cause of your vague health problems is candida, a food intolerance or food sensitivity, or the fact that you're eating too many carbs. Or maybe it's too much sugar. Actually, you just need to detox. And your gut is probably buggered so while you're at it, you'd better heal it with a highly restrictive, years-long protocol like GAPS or SCD.
Or maybe you've simply decided that the root of all your problems (physical and otherwise) is that you're too fat, so let's do a good old fashioned, old school weight loss diet.
You print out the menu plan. You clear your cupboards of "candida-forming foods" and start the diet. You feel super in control, proactive, and just a little smug.
I hate to burst your bubble, but I have some Bad News.
When you eat LESS than your body requires - whether it's to lose weight, "starve" the candida, or fix your food sensitivity - your body will do everything in its power to save you from what it perceives as the threat of starvation.
Stage 2: The honeymoon Period
You are experiencing is in fact a dietary equivalent of The Honeymoon Period. You feel great and you truly believe that you've found the fountain of eternal youth and vitality.
(BRAIN thinks: "I knew that online anti-candida health coach was onto something! I've got to tell everyone about this!").
But this is not the diet "working." This is your body's initial, emergency response to the diet. You are hopped up on your stress hormones, and it is a short lived high.
The mechanisms explaining why you feel great are surprising - I go into more detail about that here.
Stage 3: Short term progress wanes
Now pay attention, because THIS is an important stage. This is when women usually come to see me. This is the point at which folks, despite feeling awful, usually continue to eat less than they need. And it becomes the norm.
As a result they may have grown accustomed to some tell-tale signs of chronic sub-clinical starvation - I'll list these shortly.
Basically, your body has entered survival mode. It has less energy to spend on things like regulating the temperature of peripheral body parts, growing shiny hair, digesting food seamlessly, or having babies - all things that are not necessary for survival.
Stage 4: Dig Deeper
Instead of throwing the whole anti-candida protocol into the recycling bin where it belongs, we think it's OUR fault. We must not be "doing it right".
(BRAIN thinks: "Damn, I mustn't be doing this properly. I need to cut out MORE foods / add on ANOTHER restrictive diet / keto-cleanse-anti-candida-intermittently-fast my ARSE off. THEN I'll finally heal my gut / wipe out that candida / become a unicorn / whatever").
And so we diet harder. We dig deeper. We make MORE unsustainable changes. We find ANOTHER food we "must" be intolerant to. We layer ANOTHER restrictive protocol onto the one we were already doing. Or we binge then restrict, pumping out more stress hormones, continuing to place huge amounts of stress on our bodies.
Stage 5: Hit a wall
1. You quit the restrictive "health" protocol (let's just call it a diet, ok?) and any weight you lost is regained, often with interest,
2. You develop severely disordered eating patterns or an actual eating disorder, "enabling" you to sustain long term restriction despite the cost to your health and life.
So weight regain back to original weight, weight regain with extra weight than you had to start with, or an eating disorder. Pretty crappy options IMO.
By the way, neither 1 (weight cycling) nor 2 (an eating disorder) are healthy. However, the development of any one of a number of eating disorders (which include some of the deadliest mental illnesses known to humans), is not desirable in the slightest despite the sustained weight control it may bring.
From my clinical experiencing working with women with diagnosed eating disorders, I would say developing an eating disorder is far worse than regaining any weight lost.
12 signs your body needs more calories
- Feeling cold especially in extremities like toes and fingers, even when it’s not cold outside.
- Feeling more tired, more often.
- Lacklustre hair, skin and nails. Thinning hair, hair losing its lustre and shine or losing more hair than usual. Nails can become weak and break easily.
- Compromised immunity e.g. getting sick with colds and flus more than a couple of times a year, or getting frequent thrush, UTI or herpes outbreaks.
- Foggy brain, inability to concentrate
- Functional gut disorders as gut function slows (less food coming in = less peristalsis) and your microbiome changes, bringing on things such as IBS, reflux, nausea or constipation
- Period problems. This includes missing periods, scanty or irregular periods, or periods not coming back even after significantly reducing feeds or fully weaning a breastfeeding baby. Another sign of energy deficit is severe PMS as the hormones oestrogen and progesterone become imbalanced in relation to each other (specifically, there is not enough progesterone to balance out the oestrogen, leading to what is labelled as an oestrogen dominance or a progesterone deficiency). These problems occur because in its attempt to manage the stress of under-eating, the body has shunted so much of its cholesterol to cortisol production, that the production of other steroid hormones like pregnenolone, progesterone and DHEA (which also require cholesterol for their manufacture) decreases.
- Intense hunger, cravings, or LACK of appetite. You may regularly feel hungry or unsatisfied. OR conversely, if you’ve under-eaten for some time, you may not notice that you’re hungry until you’re starving, and you may not notice fullness until you’re stuffed i.e. hunger and fullness cues blunted. You may also become obsessed with food and have intense cravings and/or binge eating episodes.
- Slowed metabolism and thyroid abnormalities such as hypothyroidism inc. Hashimoto’s. Leading up to a diagnosable thyroid condition, your metabolism can slow down (up to 40% as shown in the famous Minnesota Starvation Study)
- Loss of muscle mass and strength, or finding muscles are “floppier” also known as sarcopenia
- Decreasing bone density, which can predispose us to osteopenia or osteoporosis
- Increased anxiety and/or depression. With ongoing caloric restriction, your body cannot regulate its production of mood-altering neurotransmitters as effectively. Your personality can change as apathy, irritability, moodiness, and depression set in.
Break the cycle
If you identify with many of the above signs, understand that your body is doing everything it can to save you from the restriction you are subjecting it to. It is sending emergency flares into the atmosphere, hoping you will pay attention to its warning signals.
So instead of dieting harder, listen to your body. Stop depriving it.
Stop thinking that health is just another candida protocol, GAPS phase or cleanse away. In all likelihood, these protocols are actually causing or exacerbating the very problems you are trying to fix.
Explore intuitive eating. See a HAES-informed or non-diet dietitian, and maybe a psychologist if you think you've developed an eating disorder.