Disordered Eating & IBD: Wise words from a dietitian with ulcerative colitis

When Stacey Collins was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2012 at age 21, she couldn’t drink water without becoming violently ill. She remembers asking her GI immediately after diagnosis, “What can I eat?” out of desperation and sheer exhaustion. His response? “Whatever you want. Since you are anemic, you should eat more red meat and drink some dark beer. Enjoy college. You’re young. Live your life. Diet has no effect on these diseases.”

Ding. Ding. Ding. That monumental conversation in Stacey’s patient journey transformed her career direction and inspired her to focus on the relationship diet has with IBD.

“I didn’t feel like he heard me. I knew how food felt in my body, and it certainly didn’t feel like it was inconsequential. This led me to seek out [what I had no idea was] misinformation and too many self-directed elimination diets, but this resulted in an ever-evolving interest in nutrition, and eventually, I enrolled in graduate school and became an IBD Dietitian.”

Stacey knows all-too-well how common food restriction is thanks to the anxiety that often accompanies the hard moments of life with IBD. She’s been on a mission to search for how we can eat MORE and live more fully with these diseases. But mostly, she wants to be a resource she never had. Stacey is passionate about making multidisciplinary resources (especially IBD Dietitians) more accessible to patients.

Prevalence of disordered eating in the IBD community

A study entitled, “Disordered Eating, Body Dissatisfaction, and Psychological Distress in Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)” from March 2020 asked 109 people with IBD in an outpatient setting about their relationship with food and found that 81% of respondents met at least one criterion for disordered eating behaviors, such as guilt/shame around food or preoccupation with food.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder Prevalent Among Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease” is a cross-sectional study that surveyed 161 participants with IBD, 14% met the criteria for a very specific type of eating disorder that is emerging from the research to be more commonly to be correlated with IBD: avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder, which is essentially when patients begin to associate food with GI symptoms and omit foods because of symptoms or fear of symptoms (these patients were also found to be at risk for malnutrition). Interestingly, 74% of these participants were found to be avoiding foods even in the absence of GI symptoms. It’s important to note that this screening tool hasn’t been validated in research especially for patients with IBD, but there are studies underway that are using screening tools tailored to the IBD patient community. 

Assessing for Eating Disorders: A Primer for Gastroenterologists” found that close to 1 in 4 people with IBD develop an eating disorder. There seems to be a bi-directional relationship between GI symptoms and eating disorders because of the “starvation brain” that comes from eating disorders, were maladaptive disorders happen from a prolonged period of restriction, really highlighting the need for better malnutrition screening and working with mental health professionals and IBD dietitians to collaborate with GI doctors.

I conducted a poll on Instagram asking the IBD community: “Do you have a complicated relationship with food?”…89% of people who responded said yes.

“Eating disorders and disordered eating are a bit different. Disordered eating isn’t a diagnosis; it’s on the spectrum between normal eating and an eating disorder.”

The damaging effects of malnutrition

Malnutrition has been shown repeatedly in research to lead to poor clinical outcomes, poorer prognosis, poorer response to therapy and, therefore, a decreased quality of life, so it’s important that this be avoided if possible.

Stacey explains, “A state of active inflammation/disease will demand more energy of the body, so restriction is so often not the answer to control inflammation. This review of the literature from 2020 cited research that malnutrition in hospitalized patients with IBD may be as high as 85%. A retrospective nationwide study in 2008 highlighted the prevalence in hospitalized patients with IBD with non-IBD patients who were hospitalized with benign disease and found it to be much higher (6.1% and 7.2% versus 1.8%; statistically significant).”

Malnutrition can be a complicated diagnosis to land on, because it takes several factors into account, but in IBD it results from:

  • Decreased oral intake common in active IBD 
  • Maldigestion, malabsorption, enteric loss of nutrients, rapid transit
  • increased energy needs with inflammation or infection, adverse effects of medical therapy

Stacey’s advice for the IBD community regarding nutrition

General ideas to keep in mind for how someone with disordered eating behaviors might start to shift their relationship with food.

  • If you’re struggling with feeling a loss of control around certain foods, try to assess your hunger level before you experience that dizzying feeling of ravenous consumption.
    • “If your hunger is often 8-10 on a scale of 1-10, try supporting your body by finding snacks that feel good in your body to have throughout the day, or eating more at your meals when you are able to eat. Work to avoid skipping meals, especially if you have active disease.”
  • Instead of a lack/fear/restriction mindset, you can begin to switch this to a mindset of abundance by simply making notes (in the app on your phone) of foods that feel good and healing in your body. Jot down restaurants that are accommodating to dietary requests or have especially great bathrooms.
    • “It takes time but training your body and mind to seek out foods that feel good can make a difference in your stress levels. The notes app has been especially helpful for me when I’ve been too tired to remember which foods I like, or when I’m quick to skip a meal to go to bed. If you find that this is a really challenging exercise after a couple of attempts, don’t hesitate to reach out to a dietitian for support!”
  • Lastly, try not to moralize foods: good vs bad; clean vs dirty. These are often labels given to foods by society and not by science. Instead, work to tune into the experience of eating and how food feels in your body.
    • “Food is so much more than calories in/calories out; it’s cultural, social, celebratory, mundane, and even socioeconomic. The joy of eating is important to life, and when we start to moralize foods, this often creates rules around food that are unsustainable for life’s variability. Work to instead shift the focus to overall food patterns vs hyper-focusing on labeling ingredients.”

The red flags caregivers can watch out for

Stacey says frequently skipping social events, eliminating entire food groups, and talking a lot about food can be signs of disordered eating.

“A lot of these behaviors are praised by society as “oh they’re so disciplined!” and can be tricky to spot sometimes. Simply asking your loved one, “What sounds good?” and if they’re really struggling over time to answer this question, then reaching out to a dietitian for support. For caregivers, I cannot stress enough the importance of avoiding any body comments, good or bad. Steroids are hard; we get puffy. We lose weight when we aren’t doing well, and often this is when people are quick to validate us externally.”

Bodies are dynamic, and all bodies are always changing, and sometimes ours with IBD changes more dramatically compared to a lot of other bodies without IBD. Instead, affirm your loved-one by simply spending time with them, or telling them what you value about their personality.

Three surgeries, multiple medications, and a j-pouch later

Since her diagnosis, Stacey has been on Remicade, multiple mesalamines, steroids, Inflectra (biosimilar), Entyvio, Uceris, Xeljanz, Imuran, Stelara, and Humira.

On my 10th colonoscopy in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was told she needed to start thinking about surgery.

“I always thought surgery was a last-ditch effort and worst-case scenario, and I struggled to accept this reality, but then I thought, “if there’s ANY chance that life on the other side of surgery is better than it is right now…I can do it.”

In 2021 Stacey had three surgeries and she’s now 7 months post-op from her takedown surgery. She is grateful for the surgeries and thrilled to be finding a new quality of life. Having a J-pouch has changed her relationship with food.

“Initially, I was worried about my limited diet since foods can take time to add back in, and I had to intentionally approach this transition with so much tenderness and compassion. “It takes as long as it takes,” is a post-it note that’s on my mirror to remind me that if I can’t tolerate a whole salad today, my body is still learning, and it takes time! As time lapses, I continue to learn that I really can trust my body, and she’s happiest when I keep her well-fed and hydrated. J-pouch life has granted me much more liberation around food than I was ever able to experience with UC, and I’m grateful for that.”

Since IBD is a GI disease and everyone needs nutrition to survive, EVERYONE has an opinion. So many misconceptions about food/diet in IBD are rooted in the stigma of the disease itself (people trying to avoid meds or surgeries at all costs; people trying to control GI symptoms).

Most common food-related misconceptions:

  • food needs to be eliminated to control inflammation
  • low fiber diets are needed for everyone with IBD
  • dairy and gluten should be avoided at all costs

Getting help and treatment for disordered eating

Since food restriction is anxiety-driven, it can be difficult to self-heal from disordered eating (since anxiety isn’t a choice). Stacey highly recommends a multidisciplinary approach from the support of GI-psych or a counselor with a registered dietitian who specializes in IBD.

If patients need help finding a therapist:

Stacey is a virtual IBD RD. She recently announced an exciting collaboration called “Romanwell” (Instagram: @weareromanwell) with fellow IBD RD, Brittany Roman-Green, who is a well-respected patient mentor. Romanwell is a virtual IBD nutrition private practice and an amazing new resource for our community.

“We both genuinely love helping people through their IBD journey. We both know what it’s like to need support learning to trust our bodies as we navigate all the nutrition noise, and we’d like to think that lends well to helping us approach patients from a place of empathy.”

Other IBD RD’s include:

Follow Stacey on Instagram at: @staceynellc_rd