The Benefits of Switching to Organic For Those With Eating Disorders

By Shannon Keirnan

I had moderate expectations when I started my journey: what I did not expect was that the benefits of organic eating would have a dramatic (positive) effect on the eating disorder I have carried with me my whole life.

Shannon’s Story:

I was treated for severe depression in 2006—a bad year for me, all around. My depression had gotten to the point where I was non-functional. I left school and finally sought help, though it was too little too late. I’d ruined my credit, my grades, and some of my relationships.

It was a dark time in my life, and I hate to think back on it.

Three rough years later, I managed to return to school—a little bruised, a little bent, but eager to try again.

I suppose I was “predisposed” to develop an eating disorder. As a child, at sleepovers or parties I would eat and eat all the delicious food my parents wouldn’t normally allow me, until I literally made myself sick and would vomit.

The stress of returning to college and the pressure I put on myself made fighting my depression much harder, especially because I was no longer on medications due to the cost and side-effects. I felt better, mentally, but no one had really taught me to cope with my issues. When they resurfaced, I turned to food as a comfort.

I had started working in a café and bakery at this point, and one of my favorite things about it was being able to take home big paper bags full of leftover goodies. I ate, and ate, enjoying that little flare of comfort I got from the food. I relied on it to push down the things that were niggling at me.

Soon, however, I was eating to the point where I felt ill. And I kept eating past that point. The comfort was gone, the joy missing. I was miserable, but still for some reason I couldn’t stop.

Purging seemed the natural way to solve this problem. I was no longer uncomfortable—in fact, I had room for more. Better yet, that ritual gave me something I was unable to attain other ways. It let me cry; it let me feel bad and then feel better again in moments. It was my own strange version of healing my hurts, manifesting them physically and then “curing” them. I felt exhausted, I felt ashamed, but there was a cathartic element to the cycle that I needed desperately.

I remained “mildly” bulimic for about two years. Some days I needed it more than others. When my living situation changed, I found myself relying more and more on it. The stress was worse as I moved closer to finally graduating and entering the real world, and I had the misfortune of living with a borderline anorexic who would often make criticisms about my weight that horrified and hurt me.

Somewhere around this time, I found a stray dog, and brought her home to live with me. She was a pretty little thing, and lean like a Whippet, but her experience on the street gave her the same problem as me—she was a dog bulimic. I had to hide her food, because if she found the bag she would eat until she was round as a ball and the food had nowhere left to go but back up. I controlled her portions carefully to make sure she was at an optimal weight, and would run home from work on my lunch break to dole out her tiny, perfectly arranged meals that I planned out and prepared to keep her metabolism up and her risk of gastric torsion down.

One day she got into something she shouldn’t have, and filled herself up. I remember being furious and upset to the point of tears; not because she had been naughty, as I would have thought to be upset over, but because she had destroyed my diet plan for her. I stood outside with her and cried bitterly because she might gain weight.

I called for help the next day. At this point I was purging regularly—around six times a day. I was horrified that I was passing this obsession along to my dog. What if I had children? Would I go on to destroy my daughter with my own sickness? I didn’t want her to go through what I was: disgusting reliance and self-hatred. I didn’t want her to lose control as I had.

The process of getting mental health assistance at a public university (or most anywhere, it seems) is terrifically, shamefully bad… but that’s an article for another day. The first psychologist I met with asked me why didn’t I just stop purging?

Jeez, what a novel idea.

I moved onto another, who was less judgmental but firmly believed I should be in group therapy.

Shy and uncomfortable, the last thing I wanted to do was sit in front of a group of strangers and tell them the personal details of my life (ah, how times  have changed!) and explain to them that I had lost control. That I physically couldn’t control my own actions. Mortifying! I prided myself on being cool and controlled, and I wanted others to see me that way… even strangers in the same boat.

I settled with two regulars: a psychiatrist who prescribed me medication (anti-depressants) and spoke with me a little regarding the development of my eating disorder. He postulated that I had developed it as my own coping mechanism; unable to work through my own emotions and frightened I would turn back to the comatose life that was my depression, I had made my own way of “handling” the situation.

He asked me, tentatively, if I would consider checking in for a hospital stay during treatment, but I refused. I had no health insurance, no one to watch my dog for me, and a GPA already wounded from the classes I dropped out of during my first round of school.

Besides, I was sure he was being overly cautious—I stubbornly chose not to believe that I had let myself become so ill that I required medical attention.

The second person I visited regularly was the school nutritionist. Her attitude toward food was “instinctive eating.” She wanted to teach me how to remove the stigma I had built around eating, and just get in tune to my body’s nutritional needs. It was a slow process, but it seemed to have a nice payoff at the end: only eating when I needed to.

With their combination, I worked hard at conquering my issues. I did as the nutritionist suggested—I ate my “trigger” foods and the foods I had avoided for their ability to send me into an eating frenzy. And, lo, she was right. Letting myself taste the forbidden fruit (or forbidden chocolate chip cookies, in this case) removed some of that intoxicating desire to slip off the “good path” and consume it. No longer forbidden, it was less appealing.

The medication I started shortly after. It had the miraculous effect of entirely shutting off my hunger drive.

While at first this was freeing, it was also fleeting. A week or two of only eating to survive (sometimes forcibly because I was so adverse to food that I skipped meals and got dizzy and weak), and slowly that little urge in the back of my head would come back on. Food would gain back its appeal and then some, and I’d up my dose a little bit and start all over.

One of the unfortunate effects of that particular pill was exhaustion. Every time I upped my dose, I also tacked on a few more hours I needed to sleep. Everyday life was becoming difficult to continue seeing how I needed to lie down about eight times a day. Classes, social life and work seemed more and more daunting, and I was finding myself right back in the worst part of my depression, sleeping through everything in total oblivion and with nothing on my mind but when I could shut it all out again.

In the end, financially and for my sanity, it was easier to go off the medication. I went on with what the nutritionist had taught me, and an awareness of what I was doing to myself mentally and physically, and I dealt with it.

Time passes, and dealing with things gets easier. I stopped having “accidents” and slip-ups. I learned that yes, there really are just certain foods I need to avoid if I didn’t want purges to happen. I forced myself to cope with my problems rather than seek out comfort in another way.

Life got better, as it usually does, and gradually my eating disorder stopped ruling me. But it never went away.

You’re never cured from an eating disorder, or an addiction. Always, it remained in the back of my mind.

I continued to avoid certain foods—salty, packaged meals, noodles, and some sweets, especially, because they would wake up the little murmur in the back of my mind and make it roar.

I would try not to eat to the point of being full, because my body would react like I was having an anxiety attack, demanding I get the food out of me. I would get twitchy and angry with my companions if I were eating with friends or family, and need to go be alone to work through the problem.

I tamped it down and I lived with it, as so, so many of us do. Some days I lost the fight, but I’d start fresh the next day, and it became a smaller and smaller part of who I was.

The Beginning of the Journey

A few months ago, I started the journey toward better health. 

I began working more organic, whole, and unprocessed food into my diet. It was a slow switch, but the more I added in, the more I found that I wanted to switch over entirely. About a month in, I was eating almost entirely organic, low gluten, cooking my own meals as much as possible, and eating out less. If my family made a meal, I would start out having a bite (who doesn’t love French fries right from the oven?), but soon, it lost all its appeal sitting there. I didn’t even want a taste.

Even when they brought home my favorites, or fast food, I didn’t feel driven to partake, and was only happier to prepare and enjoy my own clean meals.

My zealousness surprised me—I hadn’t expected to be so invested in this change. Yes, the food tasted a lot better, and I was noticing I had more energy than my usual empty tank, but there was something more to it that I wasn’t openly acknowledging.

That’s when I realized that the little demanding creature that always lurked in the back of my head was silent.

It had never been silent before.

Quiet, yes. Sometimes sleepy or just bored with my refusal to give in. But, always—I think for my whole life—it had been saddled up in there, driving me and pushing me and giving me a constant obstacle to overcome. The medication had silenced it, yes, but so briefly that I never lost the sense that it was there.

Now, it was missing, and I suddenly understood that my enthusiasm for this diet change had in part been driven by the fact that the more processed foods I avoided, the quieter the urges and the cravings became. The desire and worry surrounding food no longer consumed me most of my waking moments.

I had separated myself from my eating disorder to an extent I never thought possible.

I won’t say I’m cured; I don’t think people can ever be cured from addictions. But it’s made my life substantially easier, calmer, and happier, and that’s why I wanted to share this with you.

In all the treatments, they focused on the psychology of the issue—not once did the fact that much of the problem might also lay with the food itself ever come up in those awful conversations. No one mentioned the benefits of organic eating, and how it could aid in my recovery.

Considering what I’ve been learning about processed foods as part of the Natural Life team, this is surprising. In all the books I had to peruse, and the meetings with nutritionists who sought to get to the root of my addictions, never was there mention that the foods I was dependent on were designed (inadvertently or not) with that intent.

Yet, why not teach that? We’re surrounded and stuffed with foods with additives specifically to inspire cravings, that disrupt hunger signals, that trigger overeating and addictions (See “Super Size Me” for a real-life example) and alter our brains to think that eating these products is making us momentarily happy (called “the bliss point”), or have been colored, textured, and designed to make us want to eat them. Looking back, it seems so simple.

Maybe I’m more sensitive to these triggers. Maybe my genetics (coming from a family with a history of addictions), in combination with all of those other stressful things in my life, made it all too much for me… like the estimated 10 million other Americans struggling with an eating disorder.

I don’t know.

All I know is that a relatively simple switch in my diet has done more for me than medications—without the harmful side effects like serious exhaustion, and that numbing, overall disinterest in food. Where’s the pleasure in eating simply because you must? Food is amazing, and meant to be enjoyed and meant to fuel you.

It’s just not meant to rule you.

I’m Polish and I was raised to love great, hearty food and the process that goes into preparing it. Working in the kitchen brings me closer to memories of my Grandmother—rolling out pierogies on the kitchen table or filling and wrapping delicious golumpki.

Erasing the dread I built around meals and reigniting the joy is an experience I am so grateful to have returned to me.

I still munch “regular” food now and then, but since I’ve become more in-tune with my body’s signals, I recognize that even a few bites or “just a little taste” inspires me to have just a few bites more, or a bigger taste, or seconds.

Having this comparison has made all the difference. I now know and can notice that something in me is reacting unhealthily, and I can step away from it now, where before I would be trapped.

Every person and every situation is different, of course. I urge anyone struggling with an eating disorder to seek help and support through traditional channels, but to also look to the source.

I encourage you to consider the benefits of changing part or all your diet to non-processed foods. Dealing with all of the other issues surrounding why eating disorders occur is hard enough on us without the extra burden of foods that trigger addiction.

I can only hope that breaking that chain of dependency will help free others reading as it has me… I am happy, relieved, energized, and my love for great food has been renewed and unburdened, the guilt and stigma I built around it finally released. To put into words the pleasure that has brought me would be impossible.

I wish all of those reading health, and a full life rich with great food and great memories.