For two years, Meg McCormick felt sick every single day, and had to force herself to muster the energy for simple tasks. Her digestive health was so poor that she admits her eating was a “total mess,” comprised mainly of broth, butter, low-carb tortillas, and anything else that could pass through her system as quickly as possible.
“Those years were a period of darkness for me,” she says. Then, at age 30, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and it felt like a wake-up call. She began taking charge of her nutrition, determined to control her symptoms more effectively. Logging her food and symptom activity also helped, so she could track patterns and see which foods helped and which caused flare-ups. She became much more mindful, tuning into how meal timing and specific food choices affected her whole body.
“I think some people with Crohn’s feel like it’s futile to try and control the disease because the symptoms can feel so uncontrolled, but I disagree,” McCormick says. “Proper nutrition will never cure the disease, but closely tracking food intake along with symptoms is a great step to noticing trends and preventing problems.”
Mindful eating can be hugely helpful for people with Crohn’s, according to Carolina Guizar, registered dietician, and founder of the New York nutrition coaching firm Eathority. The basic premise, Guizar says, is paying attention to food as you eat it. Although the strategy is simple, it’s not always easy, given how often we eat with plenty of distractions around us. But consciously putting more mindful tactics into place may bring major results in terms of symptom prevention and flare-ups.
“When you eat with this type of intention, you can focus on taste and textures, avoid the overeating that can contribute to gas and bloating, and observe how the food makes you feel emotionally and physically,” Guizar says.
Here are some starting points to consider to get more mindful with every bite:
Eat smaller meals throughout the day
Skipping meals and then consuming a large amount in one sitting tends to exacerbate Crohn’s symptoms, notes Michelle Palcsik, a registered dietician at Cleveland Clinic. That’s because bigger meals tend to irritate the gastrointestinal system, and can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea, bloating, distension, and other reactions, she says.
Also, it’s easy to “zone out” during a particularly large meal. You might start by being aware of how each bite tastes and chewing slowly — two mindful tactics that are particularly helpful — but midway through, mindless eating can creep in, leading to bigger bites, less chewing, and more attention to distractions around you.
McCormick notes that she rarely eats large meals, and prefers to spread out her daily calories into a series of snacks that still contain all the carbs, proteins, and fats she needs. That keeps her from feeling overfull and lets her concentrate on her food more easily.
Really taste your food
Although meals and snacks can be a source of energy, they should also be savored, Palcsik suggests. Tuning in to the taste of food tends to make you eat more slowly, she says, and that gives your body time to signal fullness. Eating too quickly can bypass those signals so that it’s easier to overeat, which can then kick off Crohn’s symptoms.
Our taste buds can tire quickly, according to Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating. She notes that the first few bites of a food taste better than the next few bites, and after a large amount, we may have very little taste experience left at all.
A mindful eating practice should focus on sensory experiences of food — taste, smell, texture — as well as an awareness of what it feels like to be full, she suggests.
Log emotional reactions as well as physical ones
Because of the challenges of managing the condition, Crohn’s can often bring emotional shifts as well as physical issues, Guizar says. These might include anxiety, depression, and anger.
“Choosing foods based on how they make you feel physically may prevent you from eating items that can bring about or worsen a flare-up,” she says.
Although she’s only been logging her food for a short amount of time, McCormick can vouch for the importance of tying emotional responses to meals and snacks. She’s become much more aware of which foods lead to her feeling anxious or unhappy.
“In general, it’s all about predictability,” she says. “I like to know how my body and my mind will behave with certain foods, because that keeps my Crohn’s more controlled. To achieve that, I’ve built these mindful strategies into my daily life, and it’s still a work in progress, but I’ve made great strides toward achieving an ideal balance for myself.”
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Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition. Her articles have appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN, MyFitnessPal, and WebMD, and she has worked on patient education materials for Mayo Clinic and UnitedHealth Group. Find her on Instagram at @bossykind and on Twitter at @EMillard_Writer. Her online portfolio is at elizabethmillard.pressfolios.com. When not writing, she’s also a yoga teacher and organic farmer.