How does disordered eating affect your body?
This year, my New Year's Resolution was to adopt a vegetarian diet. This ambition required me to make a few swaps in the foods I consume, as well as the media I consume. As I replaced beef burgers with bean burgers and learned how to flavor tofu to become an acceptable taco filling, I also began to follow vegetarian and vegan chefs and influencers online. Being a vegetarian did not really change how my body felt, but following plant-based accounts completely changed my social media algorithm. I was bombarded with content about different powdery supplements to add to smoothies (that you can either eat with a spoon or a straw), and endless videos of what people (i.e. strangers) eat in a day. I found myself thinking more about what I ate, and not in a fun way, but in a ‘maybe I don’t need to spend so much energy considering flax seeds’ way.
There’s many ways to eat to fuel your body, but there’s also many ways to eat to harm your body. In this post we are going to be looking at disordered eating and how it can impact your reproductive health, sexual wellness and gut health.
What do you mean when you say disordered eating?
Normal or non-disordered eating is when you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Disordered eating is the spectrum between normal eating and an eating disorder. Some trademarks of disordered eating include fasting, binge eating, skipping meals, self-induced vomiting, laxative misuse, steroid/creatine use and using diet pills. Eating when you are bored or not hungry, eating until you are uncomfortable or altering your dietary intake in order to lose weight may be considered disordered eating by some experts.
Additionally, eating a variety of foods is considered normal eating, so some experts may consider those who avoid certain food groups or even people who eat the same thing for lunch everyday to have disordered eating tendencies. The level of severity, compulsive thinking and the impact certain limitations or excess of food intake has on your day to day life is what distinguishes disordered eating from an eating disorder.
What does disordered eating do to someone’s body?
There’s research about the impact of anorexia, which is classified by severe food restriction, and bulimia, which consists of purging after a meal, on fertility and reproduction. Anorexia induced starvation leads to malnutrition, and brain function decreases when you’re malnourished, which impacts your overall health as well as your reproductive health. For example, starvation can impede the ability of your ovaries to function properly. Your ovaries release an egg during each of your menstrual cycles, as well as producing estrogen and progesterone. If your ovaries are not functioning properly due to starvation, this can impact your ability to get pregnant and affect your sex drive. Also, having a low body fat can disrupt your endocrine system and the ability to produce reproductive and growth hormones.
Additionally there is evidence that a diet high in saturated fats or sugar can be a risk factor for infertility. Too much sugar causes a spike in insulin, and insulin is chemically similar to the ovarian hormone that prompts egg maturation. The ovaries can confuse elevated insulin levels and reduce the production of reproductive hormones, which may interfere with ovulation and therefore pregnancy.
It’s important to note that eating too much sugar or working through lunch is not prescriptive for fertility issues, but population based studies have found an association between these factors and infertility.
There is an association with disordered eating with stress, depression and anxiety. With so much pressure on wellness and diet-related lifestyles, people may feel stress and anxiety about making food choices. People may also have stress about avoiding foods that are deemed “unhealthy,” or foods they may find to be just straight up gross. Inversely, stress, anxiety and depression may cause different gut-related intolerance that makes mealtime stressful. And eating inconsistently, skipping meals or overeating can cause gut issues such as diarrhea or constipation. The association or relationship between mental health impediments, gut issues and disordered eating is not linear, so it may be helpful to talk to both your primary care physician and a mental health specialist to work as a team to determine how to best care for your symptoms.
There is a lot of information - both internal cues and external stimuli - that impacts what we eat and how we feel physically and emotionally about our food choices. It is important to remember that what we eat can impact our emotional state, fertility and our sex drive. If you are struggling with adhering to normal eating patterns, reach out to a trusted health provider for resources and information. Make sure your food, and your social media feeds, are feeding you.