The Relationship Between Food Intolerances and Eating Disorders

[Content Warning: discussion of eating disorders]

Living with food intolerances can cause great anxiety and fear regarding food and what you can and cannot eat. Walking into a restaurant and asking what’s gluten-free, nut free, low in sugar, or vegan can often result in a mere plate of lettuce with onions on top. The pre-planning of trips before going out for a meal with friends and family, the reading different packages of foods in the supermarket to ensure you can eat them, and awkwardly having to turn down the plate someone has made for you at their flat, means that your mind is constantly on food and what you can and cannot have.

Adding to this, we’re always being told to be aware what we are putting in our bodies; be it too much sugar, fat, cholesterol, or salt. Being aware of what we eat and of our diet is something that is become obsessive in today’s culture. With this to consider, as well as veganism on the rise, plus the ‘raw diet’ taking over social media, no one wants to point out the damaging effect this can have on one’s mental health.

Being constantly aware of what you’re eating can lead to unhealthy habits regarding food; for example, constantly looking at ingredients and the calories in certain dishes can lead to a type of disordered eating, or at least what can come across as such. Living with an eating disorder means that you are already ever-aware of what you’re putting into your body, which can lead to great anxiety regarding food in social settings, and this amounts to a similar situation to those with food intolerances.

Having to think constantly about what you can and cannot eat is not an easy task, but with an eating disorder, it becomes an obsession. Checking the back of packages and looking up menus for the places you’re going to visit is a ritual you spend hours doing. It’s not about figuring out what you can eat, but more if you can eat it at all.

When it comes to recovering from an eating disorder, it is about giving back to your body the nutrients it’s been lacking, and doing this can be difficult if you always have to be careful of what you’re putting into your body. Being intolerant of different foods, or to be a vegan or even a vegetarian, coupled with the experience of recovering from an eating disorder, can be extremely difficult. The quickest way to give your body the iron and protein levels it needs is to eat meat and to improve the strength of your body this way. But when you can’t eat meat or dairy for whatever reason, you instead have to be even more aware of the levels of protein, iron, and calcium in food, which means reading the packages to ensure that every meal has the nutrients your body needs. This is not something you want to be doing if you have an eating disorder.

The process of recovery is a long battle, one which involves a daily fight. Having to check the details of everything you’re eating to ensure you can eat it, or to check to make sure you’re getting the nutrients and vitamins you need from the meal, can be triggering to those struggling with eating disorders. Often the quickest way to get these nutrients and vitamins is through the foods associated with tolerances, such as nuts, dairy, and meat.

A heightened awareness of what you are eating can in itself lead to an obsessive approach to food, but the anxieties surrounding food intolerances are different to the ones surrounding an eating disorder. That’s not to say the two can’t go hand in hand. However, it’s important to note that having to be on the lookout for something you are allergic to, or being a vegan, for example, is different from living with an eating disorder. An eating disorder takes control of your mind and it invites much social anxiety and depression surrounding food. The same can be said about food intolerances, but in different ways – one is avoiding certain types of food for medical reasons, and one is needing certain types of food for medical reasons. We must never conflate the issues surrounding veganism or intolerances with those of eating disorders, but we must be aware that when a person with an eating disorder must also be so restrictive with their food, the results can be doubly dangerous.

[Kelly MacArthur]

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