Can I buy You A Beer? A Celiac Looks At Orthorexia

Wow. This post has been bubbling in my brain for a loooong time.  I’ve thought & thought & thought about how to write about this topic.  There’s a fine line here.  A month or so ago I even had a long-winded phone conversation about it with my pal, Mickey Trescott of Autoimmune Paleo, & that is when I knew for sure it was definitely time to tackle it.

We’ve got a problem in the AIP community.  Food restriction has gone awry.  Honestly, the problem seems to be part of the larger Paleo movement too, but since my special focus is folks with AI, I notice it most obviously in our neck of the woods.  Somehow, somewhere along the way, the trail was lost & suddenly I notice an explosion of “restriction for restriction’s sake.”

Let me be clear where I stand . . . I don’t think anyone should be anymore food restricted than is necessary for their good health.  To put it another way . . . I’m a Celiac, gluten is the devil for me, I have strong reason to believe that gluten is devilish even for non-Celiacs, but if it won’t lead to your slow, painful death (like it will me), then I’d like to buy you a beer sometime.  Like maybe a microbrew on your birthday or something.  Since gluten will not lead to your slow, painful death (like it will me), I think a brew on your once-a-year-special-day is probably cool.  While we’re chatting it up, I’ll have a glass of wine.  GASP!  Angie!  You follow autoimmune protocol, alcohol is forbidden!

And THAT is the problem, folks.  There seems to be a loss of perspective in the community.  The autoimmune protocol is an elimination and reintroduction approach to food meant to help manage autoimmune disease.  A strict elimination phase allows our immune systems to calm & ideally aids healing, relief from symptoms & maybe even remission.  Depending on the severity of the disease, how long you’ve been ill, & the kind of damage that has been done, your elimination phase may be longer or shorter.  BUT the key words are reintroduction & phase.  You are not meant to live the remainder of your life in uncompromising food restriction.

Another thing that was not meant to happen . . . endless variations of elimination being added to an elimination protocol.  What does that even mean, Angie?  Here’s an example, “I’m doing AIP+GAPS Intro & I also have to avoid ALL high histamine foods.”  When I hear someone say that I think, “So, you’re super hangry right now?”  Another example, “I’m doing AIP+Keto and I do not allow ANYTHING non-organic anywhere near me.”  To which I want to reply, “So, your thyroid is busted & you would loved a baked sweet potato ASAP.”

I think this starts out innocently.  We want to heal.  We really, really, really want to feel better.  And AIP helps, so we think, “Okay, I’ll do it even better.”  “If restricting these foods worked, then I should restrict even more foods & I should add other kinds of healing diets, ’cause more is better.”  More is not always better though, especially if more refers to restriction.  That level of restriction heads in the direction of disordered eating in a hurry.

There are occasions for combining elimination approaches.  For instance, there was a section on my AIP path where I had to add a low FODMAP component.  I had diagnosed SIBO & part of successful treatment is avoiding food with highly fermentable sugars that the bacterial overgrowth thrives on.  That was not a “forever” plan though & I only did it in response to a diagnosed health issue, not just for “good measure.”  Now, when I work with clients who have SIBO, one of the first things we do is look over FODMAP lists & experiment until we discover exactly which foods flare their SIBO symptoms.  Why do I have my clients do this?  As I would tell them, I don’t think anyone should be anymore food restricted than is necessary for their good health.” 

What about when you have multiple issues that different forms of elimination could address?  What then?  Very straight-forwardly, you need to triage the situation.  Decide which health issues can realistically be addressed with food (’cause not every thing can be handled with diet) & then focus on the most pressing ones first.  As you heal & are able to reintroduce foods, you can reevaluate whether or not different eliminations are warranted in helping to manage a particular health problem that may be lingering.

According to Dr. Steven Bratman, orthorexia nervosa  is “a problematic fixation on eating healthy food.”  Dr. Emily Deans, my favorite evolutionary psychiatrist (you should definitely check her out at that link above), does a great job helping us define that very fine line I mentioned in the first paragraph.  For instance, she explains that unless you’re a Celiac you don’t need to let anxiety consume you over whether or not you’ll be exposed to gluten cross contamination at a family gathering.  I’d even go further & say that you don’t need to freak out even if you are a Celiac, you just need to plan.  I’ve written before about all the anxious moments a Celiac can have in the course of day, but you’ll also note that in that same post, I wrote about all the things I do to take responsibility & carefully prep my own food.  Dr. Deans writes about when it is normal to obsess about what you put in your mouth (Celiac, a life threatening allergy, etc) & when a behavior might be crossing the line.

I think it is time for us to reevaluate where we are on the “healing diet journey” as a community & encourage some rebalancing.  Let’s all step away from the orthorexia “edge” together.  It is OKAY to eat chocolate if you’ve had a successful healing period.  It is just FINE to add white rice if you can tolerate it & need the extra carbohydrate for optimal functioning (I am really focused on getting there myself).  As your elimination phase comes to an end ENJOY that company picnic and don’t obsess about whether or not gluten touched your food . . . unless it will lead to your slow, painful death (like it will me).  In that case obsess a little.  Like just enough to stay healthy & party with the rest of us.

About Angie Alt

Angie Alt is a co-founder here at Autoimmune Wellness. She helps others take charge of their health the same way she took charge of her own after suffering with celiac disease, endometriosis, and lichen sclerosis; one nutritious step at a time. Her special focus is on mixing “data with soul” by looking at the honest heart of the autoimmune journey (which sometimes includes curse words). She is a Certified Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Nutritional Therapy Consultant through The Nutritional Therapy Association and author of The Alternative Autoimmune Cookbook: Eating for All Phases of the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol and The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook. You can also find her on Instagram.

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