There is no inherently right way to eat. Some people feel their best eating vegan, some naturally incline toward a Mediterranean diet, and others literally hate all fruit. We're all different. And just as all eating styles are valid, they are all equally susceptible to becoming the object of disordered behavior. Summer Innanen's story is a powerful example of how that can happen (and how to recognize when it does). — KM
I was 32 years old and in what seemed to be the best shape of my life. Except: I hadn't had my period in two years, my weight kept creeping up, I was exhausted all the time, and my sexual appetite was nonexistent. I was baffled. As a holistic nutritionist, I knew my diet and fitness were perfect. After all, I had "gone Paleo" four years prior. I was first introduced to Paleo by a trainer when I was trying to lose weight for my wedding. He said to eat meat, veggies, nuts, seeds and a little fruit. Given my impending nuptials, I decided to give it a go. I'd been trying to lose weight since I was a little girl. I thought if I achieved that, I could finally shut off that nasty mean girl in my head and live happily ever after. Paleo seemed like the answer to my prayers. I was instantly seduced by the promises of "looking better naked" and superhuman health — promises amplified by both scientific claims and glossy gurus. After a few weeks, I felt great! I had more energy, my digestion and mood had improved, and the cherry on top was the fact that I'd lost some weight. Finally, I had found the solution to my lifelong struggle with body hate. The more perfectly I adhered to the Paleo diet, the better I felt. This control gave me a sense of pride and achievement, like nothing I had ever experienced. I became totally absorbed in Paleo culture: I read every book, attended every lecture, listened to every podcast, and I started a blog and a pro-Paleo nutrition coaching business. My life and career revolved around this food movement and I preached their message of perfect physical health as the ultimate virtuous goal. But inevitably, that high from my newfound control, weight loss, and validation wore off. That's when the old, hateful voice in my head returned with a vengeance. I remember the day I saw a photo of myself and noticed that, for the first time in my life, I could see a hint of muscle definition. Yet, I still felt empty. It was never enough. The only solution, it seemed, was to dive further down the Paleo rabbit hole. I cut out all fruit and avoided foods like squash because of their carb content. I experimented with intermittent fasting (which, in hindsight, was a way for me to justify starvation). I would only last a few days on these strict regimes, breaking them with a major binge on Paleo baked goods. Spiraling into self-loathing, I'd try to talk myself out of it, thinking: At least the cookies were Paleo. I grew more and more angry and frustrated at my body, because I thought I was doing everything right, and yet it would not obey. I binge-listened to Paleo podcasts, desperate to find the one missing nutrient or supplement that would help me get my body under control. I was in my second year of professional nutrition training when I stopped getting my period. I saw several doctors, but their only solution was for me to go back on the birth control pill, which I refused to do for fear of weight gain. Another two years passed, and suddenly my weight began to creep back up. Still, I was committed to the diet and obsessed with finding the nutrient that would help me "get lean" like all the other Paleo people out there. I desperately searched Paleo forums and blogs, which were abundant with so-called "experts" telling you ways to "tweak" your food to lose weight.
One day, I finally got offline and into a doctor's office. That's when I discovered my alleged healthy lifestyle was actually the reason I'd lost my period and libido. She instructed me to stop my intense exercise regime and start eating more, immediately.
I was shocked to learn you didn't need a super skinny body to lose your period. Laura Schoenfeld, MPH, RD later confirmed that, "A low carb diet is a potential stressor in susceptible individuals and can contribute to amenorrhea." My calorie and carbohydrate restriction weren't the only factors either. Years of obsessive self-loathing combined with my restricted, unbalanced diet had dysregulated some of my body's hormonal functions — specifically, its reproductive capabilities.
I burst into tears — not because of my Golden Girls hormones, but because I was downright terrified that I had to stop restricting and exercising. That's when I knew I had a problem. The behaviors I was passing off as "healthy" were actually disordered. I was deficient in calories, carbs, and most importantly, my sanity. In addition to eating more and exercising less, I needed to work on what was going on inside my head. Disordered eating and psychological stress (in my case chronically obsessing over my body and food) can all contribute to a loss of proper hormone function in females. I had to abandon this idea that my life would be better if I lost weight. I needed to accept that the perfect body was the one I was already in. It took me a long time to relearn to eat like a normal person and overcome all of my food fears. I had to reset my beliefs about weight and self-worth, too. But as I ate more and introduced formerly forbidden foods back into my diet, I felt so much better. My binges stopped, my dietary obsession faded, and slowly, my hormones started to normalize. Today, I eat what I want. I know that I don't feel great when I eat certain foods, but I don't need to follow a rigid eating plan to honor what feels good for me. I also know many people who manage chronic illness and thrive eating by eating Paleo, and I do believe food is medicine. But it can become poison when your psychological well-being is taking a beat down. You hear what you want to hear when you're trapped in the diet mentality. When I was in that trap, I ignored the rational Paleo practitioners who were there all along, saying that women actually need adequate amounts of calories and carbs. Quality of life is subjective. For me, that means saying yes to spontaneous ice cream dates with my husband, spending my free time at the beach (instead of alone with my Tupperware), and liberating myself from the emotional burden that came with my diet. Breaking up with Paleo helped me find the peace and freedom I had been seeking all along.