No dairy. No gluten. No or low carbs. Counting grams. Counting macros. Counting calories. No sugar. No processed foods. No eating after a certain time. Only eating in a specific time window.
The list of food rules we hear from diet culture seems to be never-ending. It’s easy to get sucked in when we are promised more confidence, worthiness, and happiness if we just eat a certain way. However, rigid food rules often lead us to a place of poor health on multiple levels—including poor gut health.
I have had countless clients complain of constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, only to discover they were rooted in problems caused by food rules they learned from someone on social media, their personal trainer, or a friend or family member.
Most of the time, when my clients have rigid rules around food they also experience related anxiety, which can cause ailments like nausea. It can be easy to believe that it’s the food you have created a rule around that causes GI distress. And it’s no secret that unscientific messages abound in diet culture about “bad” foods.
For example, if you force yourself to avoid added sugars, the next time you’re around cake, you will likely feel distress. If you eat the cake, continuing to believe it’s bad, the upset stomach that may occur is likely caused by that anxiety, not the cake or the sugar in it.
And according to Danielle Ziegelstein, MS, RD, LDN, this anxiety can affect how our bodies process nutrients.
“Our brains are in constant communication with our guts via the gut-brain axis. When we eat in a stressed state, we’re much less likely to eat mindfully—things like chewing thoroughly, eating slowly, and focusing on the taste of the food,” she says. “When we eat too quickly, fewer digestive enzymes get released in the mouth, and later in the rest of the GI tract, and the food is not broken down as well as it should be, which in turn can cause reduced digestion and absorption of all the nutrients we ate.”
Urgent Hunger and Overfullness
Food rules disconnect us from our bodies because they ignore our natural cues, like hunger and fullness, and create an overall stressed state.
If food rules cause you to restrict energy (calories) or not eat for long periods of time (like skipping breakfast or lunch), you may miss your body’s natural, comfortable hunger cues and you may become overly hungry often—wreaking havoc on your physical, emotional, and mental states.
And Ziegelstein says the mindlessness that comes with food-rule-induced stress can prevent people from honoring their bodies’ boundary of fullness, “since they’re not slowing down and paying attention to when they are full and satisfied,” she explains.
While eating past fullness is okay and normal sometimes (and a part of the Intuitive Eating process), if we are constantly pushing past our bodies’ boundary, we will have frequent GI upset and discomfort.
Disrupted Gut Bacteria
Avoiding or eliminating large food groups, like grains, can cause an imbalance in our gut microbiota, or the beneficial microorganisms in our GI tracts.
“Different types of foods offer different bacteria, so eating a varied diet can lead to higher bacterial diversity, and thus a flourishing microbiota,” says Ziegelstein. “Eliminating major food groups can essentially limit the richness of the gut bacteria, which can cause poorer gut health.”
A varied diet includes foods from all the food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, and fat. (Of course, if you have a diagnosed food allergy, this is an exception to the rule.)
Accelerating or Decelerating Body Systems
The impact of food-related stress can cause constipation or diarrhea, according to Ziegelstein. “Stress can impair [the] function of the muscles in our gut. This can mean either accelerated or delayed movement of food through the stomach and intestines,” she says. “Slowed down transit through the GI tract may lead to constipation, while abnormally quick transit, paired with suboptimal nutrient absorption, can cause diarrhea.”
And an energy deficit brought on by food rules can cause gastroparesis, a slowing down of stomach emptying, which can result in bloating, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, and early fullness.
What to Do Instead
Here are a few alternatives to food rules that may help you develop a healthy gut:
- Ziegelstein recommends including prebiotics, which are foods high in fiber that feed your good bacteria, and probiotic-rich foods, like Greek yogurt, kimchi or sauerkraut, and tempeh.
- Consider supplementing with digestive enzymes (such as lactase) or probiotics. “I would recommend looking for a probiotic that is enteric-coated to ensure the bacteria makes it to the colon intact,” Ziegelstein says, “and working with a registered dietitian or licensed provider with expertise in this area to help customize recommendations.”
- Use mindfulness and relaxation techniques at meals to help create a more peaceful eating experience and to stay connected to your body. “Gut-directed hypnotherapy or another relaxation technique like deep breathing [or engaging senses] prior to [and during] eating can help someone feel relaxed and present at mealtime, eat more mindfully, and optimize digestion,” Ziegelstein shares.
- Stay hydrated and move your body in ways that feel good for you.
- If you think you have a food allergy, get tested by an allergist instead of trusting a food sensitivity test without a healthcare provider’s guidance.
- Include all food groups in your intake and give yourself permission to include foods you enjoy. If this feels emotionally difficult, work with a non-diet registered dietitian to help heal your relationship to food.
- Pay attention to how different foods make you feel and let that information from your body guide your choices. “When we have a positive relationship with food and our body, we are more likely to eat foods that make us feel good and that we enjoy,” Ziegelstein shares. “This means being more in tune with our inner wisdom: acknowledging how hungry we are before a meal and how full and satisfied we are after a meal, paying attention to what kind of food we’re in the mood for, and choosing foods to eat because of how they actually make us feel.”
Read more about foods that can help us cope with anxiety.