Eating for a highly sensitive body

But what do I eat?

These is so much anguish in this little question, isn’t there?

When did food become so goddamn confusing? There’s so much hype out there around very specific and rather rigid diets, all aimed at achieving some idea of physical health or beauty, and we’re bombarded by their conflicting messages all the time.

The uncensored, snarky part of me sees those messages go something like this:

Paleo – because grains will kill you.

Keto – Because sugar will kill you, but fat is awesome.

Low fat – Because fat will kill you, but sugar is awesome.

Vegan – Because eating animals or their products is bad for the planet, your body, and future generations. They will kill you.

Vegetarian – because meat will kill you.

Gluten-free – Because wheat will kill you.

I’m kidding. (Well, kind of). Full disclosure – I’ve been on all of these diets (except Keto) at one time or another. In my younger years, I chose diets that I thought I “should” eat – that I thought would be good for me, based on the information out there. I choose diets based on my personal values as a conservationist and as a way to try and help the planet out.

But what I’ve found as I got toward and into my 30’s was that choosing a diet based on my values didn’t actually work for my body. I have a highly sensitive body, and the older I get, the more I recognize that certain foods I believed I should eat became triggering to my system, forcing me to give up a value-driven diet and opt instead for a body-driven diet.

We all have very, very personal feelings about the diets we choose. I loved being vegetarian for the values I believed it upheld. It made me feel good to be making that contribution to the planet in my small, locally-driven meals.

But in my mid-twenties, blood sugar issues, anemia and chronic digestive problems forced to find another solution. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I was in pain. I was told very nicely but firmly by a lovely ND that my gut wasn’t processing all the grains I was eating – grains considered “healthy” by mainstream standards – things like brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, wheat and barley. At the same time, the tests showed that what my body needed the very most was something I’d completely sworn off – red meat.

I see this kind of thing all the time in my practice with highly sensitive people. You come to me feeling off – feeling tired, lethargic, fatigued and having digestive distress. You tell me you eat “healthy,” which I always ask you to define (because everyone – everyone – defines this differently).

Nine times out of ten, you are eating healthy. But you’re eating from your mind’s perspective, not your body’s.

I believe that all the information out there about diets and which one is better is confusing us. It makes us think that we should just look at the pros and cons of various diets, the accumulated evidence of the diet throughout history and see the results that other people are having.

In other words, the world makes us think that we should use our mind in order to feed our body. But this gets us – especially us sensitive folks – in trouble a lot. Because we actually need to use the wisdom of our body in order to fuel us.

This means that we have to re-learn how to get into the sensing part of our body, to pay attention to the foods that actually feed us and the foods that fool us. It requires that we pay attention to what we’re eating, why we’re eating and how we’re eating.

Don’t get me wrong – you will be using your mind here, too – but only as a sidekick to the wisdom of your body.

Most highly sensitive people have some sort of food sensitivity (go figure), and many will have several. This means that traditional ideas of what “healthy” is may not apply to the you.

Which means that you might need to stop looking at the all the hype around diet, especially as it pertains to reaching some target weight. Instead, hsps need to look toward eating foods that agree with their sensitive system. Rather than follow someone else’s plan of how you “should” eat, you need to create a plan of how YOU eat.

But where do you start?

The gut sensitivities I just mentioned are often (but not always) associated with inflammation, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), or a combination of the two. In that case, creating your own food program might start with eliminating foods that have been shown to lead to or increase inflammation or are known to be triggers for sensitive systems.

(Speaking of IBS – if you’ve had IBS for a while and haven’t tried the low-fodmap diet, it might be worth a try. This diet isn’t based on any value-driven fad; rather, it’s a researched protocol that allows foods deemed easy for a damaged gut to digest and suggests avoiding foods that have been tested and found to be difficult or harmful to a damaged gut. You can read more about that diet in my blog posts about SIBO).

Foods that can trigger a sensitive system – and those I’ve seen hsps have the most trouble with —  include wheat, dairy, sugar, beans and legumes and complex grains. Now, please note that I’m not saying all hsps will need to cut these out of their diet – we’re all different, even though we’re sensitive. I’ve also seen some hsps thrive on vegan and vegetarian diets. See, if I laid out a food program here, then I’d be saying the same thing that everyone else is saying. Rather, I’m laying out some guidelines so you have a place to start.

Other foods that can cause inflammation or just be rather difficult to digest are cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, celery, asparagus and aromatics like garlic and onions. Some people also have trouble with nightshades, like eggplant and tomatoes.

Creating your own diet takes time and patience to figure out what works for you. In general, you could start by eliminating the aforementioned foods (and any that you know bother you) for three to four weeks, and then start adding foods back in slowly, one at a time. Each time you add in a new food, wait three days to see if any of your discomforts come back.

Be aware that the amount you eat could be a factor – for example, I can eat up to a half cup of beans in a sitting, but no more, and I can’t have them less than three days apart without getting severely bloated.

All of this experimenting requires trial and error (which will include error!), but more importantly, it requires you to pay attention and feel what’s going on for you. It might be helpful to keep a small journal around to note what you eat and any symptoms that arise.

Other considerations:

The science of Ayurvedic medicine has some some great guidelines for helping you digest better, no matter what you eat. In fact, they say that how you eat is even more important than what you eat. So, no matter what you choose to do about your food, you can follow these guidelines to make digestion a happy, easy time for your body.

  • Eat undistracted in a calm environment. When we have stress in the body, the stress hormone cortisol works to shut down the digestive process – it’s our body’s way of preparing us to fight or flee. Remove any stressors like the news, stressful conversations or heavy reading.
  • Take at least three deep breaths before eating, setting the intention of easy digestion. Take a moment to let your body know that you are eating now and that you recognize the big project it has ahead – of digesting your food.
  • Pay attention to your food, chewing until the food has an even consistency. Pay attention to the flavor and texture of your food. Stop when you are 75% full to allow enough air in your belly to stoke the fire of digestion.
  • Only drink small amounts of liquid with your meals. Liquid dilutes the digestive juices of your stomach, making your body work harder to digest. Wait 30-60 minutes after a meal to drink and get most of your water intake between meals.
  • When you are finished eating, take some time at the end of your meal – at least three deep breaths – to relax. If you have the time, take an hour to relax and let your body do the work of digestion.
  • Eat at regular times each day. Eating regularly teaches your body when to “preheat the oven” of your digestion – it puts your digestion on a clock that allows you a better chance of digesting fully.
  • Warm, cooked foods are easier to digest than cold, dry foods. If you’re flared up or experiencing gut issues, opt for one-pot meals like soups and stews for easy digestion.

Your body is unique and highly sensitive, which means that your diet probably be those things, too. Try not to get caught up in what everyone is telling you that you “should” eat, and instead look for foods that make your body feel good.

You can totally do this. It will take some finagling, but it’s well worth the effort in order to feel good. Like most things in the sensitive world, it’s a matter of figuring out your own way.




2 Comments on “Eating for a highly sensitive body”

  1. Thank you, THANK YOU for addressing something I have had to come to the conclusion of on my own. And is something which I hear NO ONE ELSE-in the HSP community, the autoimmune community, and beyond-addressing.

    I have spent nearly a decade and a half on elimination diet after failed experiment after “anti inflammatory” diet after espoused fad (I’m looking at you, Paleo), only to conclude that I have sensitivities (and tolerances) that don’t correlate to any list out there, including even the FODMAP elimination diet.

    I have perhaps (I haven’t counted lately) 25 things in my diet that are truly safe and that I rotate regularly. I’ve even given up avocado! But brown rice-even though not any other grain-is my body’s favorite!

    Point, I’ve had to wrap my head around this concept on my own, and I appreciate you validating it for the rest of everyone whom I assume are out there, dealing with exactly what I am dealing with.

    I agree, the 30’s have changed everything-I started this in my early 20’s, when things were LESS dire. As I’ve gotten older, there’s no idealism about it. I used to make my friends seriously smashing meals on a really regular basis. Now, there’s no letting an ingredient slide. Cheating hurts.

    If I could go back and tell my younger self….

    So, thank you.

  2. This was so good to read. I’ve done heaps of personal research and experimentation, and a whole year of therapy with a doctor, shrink, and nutritionist. The end result was hearing ‘You’re always going to be sensitive, and the science to fix your gut doesn’t yet exist.’

    Learned I have a yeast allergy, histamine intolerance, issues with fructans, nightshade sensitivity, and (unsurprisingly) anxiety to boot. There’s so many sensitivities that it’s super difficult to keep under control.

    Despite my constant unease, i’d rather not go back on anti-depressants – they didn’t change the physical feeling, they just stopped me worrying about it! Your article is inspiring me to to try again to create my own diet – this time based on what I know about myself. Thank you.

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