Eating restrictively, dieting, or eating in a way that is not attuned to your body is hard on your digestion. Intuitive eating and being more attuned to your body actually help with digestion.
Digestion is really impacted by how regulated your nervous system is. Some people can easily regulate their nervous systems and some are more easily dysregulated. You may be familiar with the Window of Presence (also referred to as the Window of Tolerance), where they talk about being out of that window- in a hyper state of arousal (flight or fight) or a shutdown state. Ideally, you spend most of your time in that window where you're comfortable, you feel safe and secure, and where your nervous system is very regulated. In that place is where healing and optimal digestion happen. If you're someone who's out of the Window of Presence pretty frequently and who’s nervous system isn't easily regulated, then you're likely struggling with digestion. You may be prone to constipation or diarrhea, you may not be absorbing nutrients, or you may be having a lot of bloating or other symptoms.
Dieting and restricting increases preoccupation with food, thoughts of shame, and a lot of the eating behavior that people are concerned about. If you're eating restrictively, then you're going to often have the pendulum swing of eating in a way that feels out of control. That cycle is really hard on your body since you're not getting enough nutrients. It puts you into a stress response so you're going to be in that fight or flight hyper state of arousal or you're not going to have enough energy and you're going to go into shutdown. It's going to prevent you from being in that window of presence or tolerance. When you're having a lot of shame, that will tend to put you into fight or flight or into shutdown mode, more often shut down. Shame will increase preoccupation which increases anxiety. As you have increased anxiety your nervous system is more dysregulated. Likely, you try to deal with the shame and anxiety by restricting again. It's a vicious cycle.
When you're in that cycle of dieting and restricting there will be a pendulum swing. When it swings, typically you eat everything, throwing the diet out the window, which is hard on your digestion in the sense that you're not going to be getting consistent food, getting enough nutrients, and then suddenly, you're getting a large amount of food, maybe even so much that you’re eating in a way that's not attuned to your body, and it's feeling physically uncomfortable. You're not listening to your hunger and fullness signals because you're in that primal hunger stage where your body is just feeling restricted and thinks that it's a famine, and now it's time to eat abundantly so that you can make up for that energy deficit. You're going to have a lot of food that you're trying to digest all at once. If you're eating beyond fullness on a consistent basis or past fullness to an extreme amount, then that's going to be hard on your digestion as well.
Another consequence of restricting is that it leads to less of the good bacteria in your gut. Studies show that just having disordered eating creates the same negative impact as having a full-blown GI disorder. Studies found that people who are diagnosed with anorexia and in recovery (after they go through a refeeding phase) have a significant decrease in the variety and amount of good bacteria in their intestines.
These are all ways that dieting and restriction or even the idea that you should be eating healthy can actually harm your digestion, both through throwing you out of nervous system regulation and through other physical, mental, and emotional effects.
What do we do about that? First off, reject all that diet culture BS. You're going to throw that right out the window because it is not helpful and diets do not work. If you're not sure or you're not familiar you can check out some of my other blogs on these pieces. You can also check out the Intuitive Eating book and there are some other really great anti-diet books out there as well.
Instead of doing the dieting thing, shaming and should-ing yourself, and keeping your body, nervous system, and digestive tract all out of whack, you're going to build body attunement. Body attunement simply means being attuned or tuned in to the signals that your body is giving you. That can include hunger and fullness signals but it also includes signals that you need a break, you are feeling restless, or signals around emotions, like you're angry, signaling that someone is crossing a boundary. It's honoring the messages that your body is giving, taking care of yourself, and nurturing yourself. You're going to build body attunement, connection, and trust with your body, and let that be your guide.
You may be wondering, how is this going to help your digestion?
The more attuned you are to your body, the more you're able to honor your needs and stay in that window of presence. Optimal digestion happens in that range. By rejecting diets and diet culture, you will have less shame, less anxiety, fewer things throwing you out of that window. By building attunement, you'll be able to notice signals like not feeling great when you eat, for example, the extra-large size of popcorn when you go to the movie theater actually makes you feel a little queasy and constipated. You're not going to necessarily stop eating popcorn, but you're going to notice how it makes you feel. You'll have more discernment and choice in it. You're honoring how it actually makes you feel, acknowledging that and then making choices based on that. You're also going to be able to honor hunger and fullness signals. When you're honoring hunger signals, you're going to eat more consistently, and really fuel your body, which again, is going to help with that nervous system regulation. It will help with energy level, sleep, and blood sugar regulation. Eating regularly, when your body says you're hungry, is good for digestion as well. Your body knows what to expect, it's moving things through, you're not getting too little and then a large amount of food all at once, you're just getting the amount that feels good to you.
We don't want to turn intuitive eating into the hunger fullness diet. There's nothing wrong with eating beyond fullness, especially if you're in choice about that and you're using discernment, when you decide I'm going to have a little more of this, this would feel good to me right now. In general, if you're able to be aware of your fullness signals, and honor them, that's going to help with digestion because your body's going to be processing the amount of food that it's able to process at once and not feel overburdened by that. You're less likely to get heartburn, bloating, all of these kinds of things.
Intuitive Eating and body attunement help your digestion, your mental and emotional health, and helps to increase your resilience by increasing your ability to regulate your nervous system. It is such a beautiful way to nurture yourself!
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The first step to healing our relationship with food is reconnecting with the signals our body gives us. One of the ways to do that is by checking in with your hunger before you eat. Here's my spin on the traditional hunger scale.