• Paige Smathers

45: A Personal Story of How a Perceived Gluten Sensitivity Masked an Eating Disorder

Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and journalist who specializes in HAES and intuitive eating. She does such amazing work in her professional life with her podcast, her social media, her private practice, her online course and more. But, I wanted to talk to her about her own personal journey with food and learn about her path to recovery from an eating disorder. Christy talks about she assumed she had a gluten sensitivity and how this assumption led to chaos with food and a struggle with an eating disorder. She talks about how she worked through that and what she does professionally now to spread awareness and help others create peaceful relationships with food.

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Full transcript:

Paige: As I was listening back to this episode as I was editing it I realized that I neglected to define some terms that I think are really important, just in case you’re not really familiar with some of the things that we’re talking about. So, this might be a little bit basic for some people, others this might be your first time really learning about some of these terms, but let’s just talk about that before I get into the interview so that you can feel comfortable with some of the language we’re using. So, the first thing is we’re going to be talking a lot about gluten. I think we’ve all heard about [gluten] and seen it everywhere, but as far as the true definition I think some people don’t quite know what it really means. So, when we say gluten, what that actually means is it’s just a protein that is found in wheat, rye and barley. For someone with Celiac Disease eating a gluten free diet is the only known cure for Celiac Disease. Many people have jumped on the bandwagon of going gluten free without actually having a diagnosis of Celiac Disease. In this episode we talk about non Celiac gluten sensitivity. I think that’s an important distinction to make. Gluten sensitivity versus actual Celiac Disease. Gluten sensitivity, as we’ll mention in this episode and in our conversation is a poorly understood, often misdiagnosed, and maybe not even related to gluten at all. So, enjoy this episode about gluten. I hope that helps to define some terms. And just as I mentioned toward the end of this, if you suspect yourself of having issues with gluten, just keep on eating and go get tested. The only way you can get an accurate result with your test is to be consuming it regularly before you get tested; otherwise you might get a false negative, meaning you might actually have Celiac Disease, but if will tell you you don’t because you’ve been eating a gluten free diet. Hope you enjoy this episode.

Today, we are going to be talking about gluten free and we are going to be talking about a very personal story of my guest and what she went through in her history with going gluten free and cutting certain things out of her diet and where she is now. Let me briefly introduce Christy Harrison; some of you might already know Christy she is a podcast host. Her podcast is called Food Psych. It’s really awesome, I’ve listened to tons of her episodes and I really really love it. If you haven’t checked that out already please do. But let me introduce her a little bit. Christy is a registered dietician and also a certified intuitive eating counselor. She has a private practice, I believe it’s in New York City, is that right, Christy?

Christy: That’s right.

Paige: And she works with folks who are struggling with eating disorders and she specializes in health at every size. What’s really cool about Christy is she’s recently launched a few online courses to be able to help people wherever you are. If you’re in the boat where you’re looking for a little extra learning about intuitive eating, I would definitely check out her website and we’ll talk more about that at the end and I’m sure throughout the course of this hour. I’m so excited to have Christy here. She has over thirteen years in experience in food nutrition media. She is actually a journalist and a registered dietician at the same time. She has a really great background and since we are both podcast hosts we connected and when I learned about her story I was like, “Oh man, I really want you to come on and share that.” Welcome to the show, Christy, thank you for being willing to share this with us.

Christy: Thank you so much, Paige, it’s great to be here and thanks for that wonderful introduction.

Paige: You’re so welcome thank you for all the work that you do, I love just knowing that there’s other people out there trying to put these messages out in the world and help people because it’s such a different message than some of the other ones that are out there.

Christy: Totally. Me too, I was so happy to see your podcast and just connect with you through my podcast and it’s so awesome that people in all these different corners of the country and in the world are doing this work. Very happy

Paige: Well, I kind of just want to first ask you, did I miss anything in that introduction? Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Christy: Oh my gosh, it is just a winding path that I’ve had so I think you think pretty much captured everything. I started as a journalist, went back to school to become a registered dietician and now I do both, plus the podcast, which I consider is part of my journals and work and the online course, which really kind of bridges the two.

Paige: Yeah, those are two very important things to marry and in our world with social media and the ability to help people remotely that's awesome. I’m so glad you’re doing that and got that off the ground. That's not easy.

Christy: Right! I know, I’m really grateful that I have that background too because I didn’t set out to do this, necessarily. I had no idea when I went into journalism fourteen years ago that I was going to end up where I am now. So, it’s been a cool journey.

Paige: Well, let’s talk a little more about your journey and kind of starting from the beginning. There’s a really interesting article about Christy in, is it called, Refinery29? Is that like a blog?

Christy: Yeah, it’s a website, like a fashion, it’s mostly women’s issues so like: fashion, health, wellness, beauty all of that stuff.

Paige: Okay, sorry I’m not with it enough to know what that is. (laughing) So, there’s this awesome article outlining Christy’s story and that’s where I’m drawing a lot of my questions for you today, Christy. So, tell us a little bit about some of your early experimentations with dieting and what those looked like.

Christy: That’s a great question. Unlike many people I never dieted when I was in high school. I mean I had a brief pretend diet when I was seven, but that was sort of a goof, I don’t know. I never seriously dieted until I was in college and when I was in college I went on a birth control pill that just made me gain weight quickly and for the first time I grappled with an experience [of] this thing of having gained weight and feeling like I should lose it. So, that was what led me into my first diet when I was studying abroad in Paris and I had this weird birth control pill that I went on while I was there that did that. I didn’t connect it at all in my head. I hadn’t ever gained weight before so I never really thought this pill could be causing it and I thought I should look into dieting and figure out how to lose weight. I started sort of innocently enough, the way most people do where I googled around, and this was back in 2003 or 2002, by the way, so, it was…

Paige: The early phases of Google.

Christy: The early phases of Google. In fact, I might have at some point yahooed or asked jeeves-ed about…

Paige: (laughing) Asked Geeves? I remember Ask Jeeves

Christy: I was a pretty early adopter of Google. It’s possible that I asked Jeeves for some diet advice. And like many people, when they start searching around on the internet, I stumbled onto some really bad advice. Even though I was studying to be, I mean, I wanted to be a journalist I was in the process of getting my Bachelors, and I sort of knew how to be critical of what I read, and yet I did not connect that skill to the stuff I was reading online about dieting.

Paige: When it was about you and your personal struggle. Interesting.

Christy: Yep! Yeah, totally. It was totally foreign to me and because I had no experience with it prior I had never searched for that information before I just, sort of, uncritically believed what I read and uncritically took the advice of other people that I talked to as well. I stumbled into some bad advice on how much you “should” restrict your calories, (should in quotes), of course to lose weight and so I started doing some of this stuff and did lose some weight somewhat quickly. I also went off the birth control pill at that time and I think a lot of it was just water weight that naturally came off when I stopped the pill, but I didn’t realize that and so I kept going and I kept experimenting and doing different things and within a few months I had lost a significant amount of weight to where I started having period problems. So, I did lose a little bit of weight fairly quickly and then I started having problems with my period. I started missing periods, I started having irregular periods and, again, didn’t connect it to what I was doing with food or exercise and just kept going with that and kind of getting more and more disordered with my behaviors around food and exercise. Then I lost my period completely. Once that happened, I was like, “Okay, something’s wrong. I really should be getting my period, seems to be now, unrelated to going off the pill because it was months later.” I started going to doctors and trying to figure out what was going on with that.

Paige: Were you at lower weight than, than when you started?

Christy: I was. I was at a lower weight then, but in interestingly, and you know I’m not going to use numbers because I don’t want to trigger anyone, but interestingly, it wasn’t a low enough weight to alarm anyone. I think that’s the thing that I always want to share and I think a lot of people don’t realize is that what ended up becoming an eating disorder for me, I was never actually at a weight that was low enough to alarm anyone; doctors didn’t even say [I’m] actually underweight, [I] needed to gain weight, none of that. I wasn’t a big person to begin with either. That’s the other thing, if you’re in a larger body to start it’s very common to have doctors to miss that disordered eating behaviors that lead to unhealthy weight loss because you started in a larger body. But even if you don’t start at a larger body, even if you start out in a relatively thin body, you can still have significant enough weightloss to cause real problems and significant enough, certainly, behavioral issues with food to be diagnosable as an eating disorder and yet doctors don’t see it..

Paige: Right. That’s a good point.

Christy: So, that’s what happened to me, basically, I had lost enough weight to have period problems and it was because I was doing all this messed up stuff with food. And that was really the heart of what became my eating disorder was just this mind set that I needed to always be losing weight. I need to be figuring out different ways to lose more weight or maintain my weight or whatever it was. In this process of trying to figure out what was going on with my period the only person who really connected it to my weight change was my mother. And she had seen me, she had known me before and after this weight loss and she knew that it was somewhat significant to people who knew me; they could tell a difference. She said, “I wonder if some of these problems would reverse if you gained a little bit of weight.” And I would just not hear it, I was like, “No, that can’t possibly be it, it’s just something else.” I remember using the phrase, “It’s not fair, other people get to be this thin and nothing happens to them, so it’s got to be something else.” So, other people’s natural body types had any bearing on what my body was doing with this weight, you know?

Paige: So, if I remember, right or if I remember your story right, the next thing that happened was a friend gets diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease. Is that right?

Christy: Yes, yes, exactly. So, right around this time as I was having all these health problems, not just the period issues, but other health issues that were cropping up more and more, a friend got diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease and I was talking to her about my symptoms and she shared with me that she had similar symptoms before she got diagnosed and started eating gluten free and the symptoms vanished. And the stuff that she was talking about was brain fog and fatigue and constipation and anxiety and low energy. Stuff that was nebulous and not, sort of, obviously linked to any one thing, but I can now, totally see in retrospect, especially with knowledge and training in eating disorders that all of those things were, for me, symptoms of eating disorders.

Paige: Right! I was just thinking that if you’re looking at these things through an eating disorder lens it makes perfect sense, you know?

Christy: Exactly, but also, if you’re thinking about it through a Celiacs Disease lens and missing the eating disorder you might think it sounds like Celiac Disease.

Paige: Interesting, okay. So, what did you do next?

Christy: So she told me about that and I immediately jumped on a gluten free diet and I did all this research. I was on message boards and, again, this was early days. Nobody knew what a gluten free diet was back in 2003/2004. The trend hadn’t spiked yet the way it has now. I was doing all this research and finding obscure celiac support blogs and stuff like that and trying to figure it out on my own. I put myself on this gluten free diet thinking it was going to be a magic bullet, like, “Oh, of course. It has to be explained by gluten, that would make completely sense. And side note: I also don’t have to look at what I’m doing with food and weight” and sort of unhealthy behaviors around food. I did go on a gluten free diet, at my friend's recommendation I tried it out for two weeks to see if I felt better. And, at first, I thought I did and then I couldn’t tell and it’s so hard to be scientific about yourself, you know? I think that was my experience like, “Am I feeling any better? I don’t know. The constipation is still here, but the fatigue seems to be slightly improved.” It was very inconclusive.

Paige: Yeah. and just for timeline wise, was this sort of towards the end of college into your career?

Christy: Yeah. I think I was probably 22. Yeah I was 22 at the time. I had just finished college and just starting my career. I was working at a newspaper in San Francisco and I met a guy there, who I had really liked. I had a huge crush on him and he was a food and science writer as it turns out. And I could tell.;I shared this with him, this 4A into gluten freedom and he kind of reacted negatively. He conveyed to me that he felt like it was all a little bit pseudoscience-y and not really valid, this experiment that I had done on myself. That definitely played a role in my next steps with it. I ended up getting together with that guy and dating him and he was a huge foodie and he actually helped me overcome, without even realizing it, because I hadn’t really told him at the time what I was going through with food, really; but he helped me overcome the most restrictive aspects of my eating disorder. So, I was eating with him when we were together. I was being adventurous because I wanted to impress him

Paige: Yeah! That can kind of help, huh?

Christy: It really did, it was a huge motivator. Not the healthiest in general to change yourself to impress a guy, but in this case it actually worked in my favor.

Paige: Exposure therapy!

Christy: It totally was, it totally was. It’s de facto exposure therapy. So, at the time I put the gluten free pursuit on hold and I dated him for a year and a half. And during that time I gained a little bit of weight and also accepted my gynecologist recommendation to go on birth control again on a different pill that didn’t end up making me gain as much weight, but it was basically always her solution and I just didn’t want to hear for that year that I didn’t have my period, but finally I was like, “Okay, fine. I’ve exhausted all the other options, I’ll just do that.” So, I did. I got my period back and I was dating this guy and it seemed like everything was sort of settling down, but then he and I broke up and I got into another relationship and I also started working as a food writer in New York City. And then suddenly, all my writing about food; I had free license to look into any sort of food trends and scientific issues around food that seemed appealing to me and I could just pitch them and write them and I was an editor at a magazine where I was in charge of nutrition and health content. I took that as license to really explore this gluten free thing again, and I ended up circling back to it several times. Which also, by the way, the first time around I did get tested with Celiac Disease and I didn’t have it. It came back negative and I went about my life and then after coming back to it and doing all this research as a journalist I had started reading stories of people who had taken multiple times of being tested to be diagnosed or some people claiming misdiagnosis with certain kinds of tests and you needed to get other kinds of tests to be conclusive. So, I really went down a rabbit hole with this and I got tested a bunch different ways, a bunch of different times; all came back negative. I finally found a gastroenterologist who, interestingly, seemed to suspect something was going on because I was still restricting my food at the time, and I think it had gotten worse and my weight was at the lower end of my range again. And she seemed to suspect that something was up with my weight because she was like, “You really need to not lose any weight. You’re like right on the edge here, but let’s try you on a gluten free diet. Just try it and see if you feel better.” So, I did and this time I sort of claimed that I felt better and, again, wasn’t entirely sure. But it was sort of validating and helpful to have someone… well, not helpful, really, but felt helpful at the time to have someone co signing this idea of, “Well, just try it out and if you feel better, that great.” And also, somewhat acknowledging, “Okay, I see you. I see that you’re weight’s a little low, but it’s okay, don’t worry about it, just focus on whether you feel better with this.” Which, at the time, felt so validating, but in retrospect I think that was pretty enabling and not helpful. Because I wasn’t fully seen. I wasn’t called out for exactly what was happening.

Paige: Well and it’s interesting. It’s in and of itself and misdiagnosis or like a false diagnosis in terms of you had a lot of that going on with people not recognizing some of the signs and symptoms and red flags that you’re going through.

Christy: Yeah, absolutely. And a couple different therapist actually. My first therapist in college; I tried sharing this stuff with. Because my mom was starting to worry about my weight and people were making comments about how little I was eating and stuff. So, I said to my therapist, this was before all the gluten free stuff, the early stages of the eating disorder I tried telling this therapist and she said, “Oh, well you’re not that small. You’re not thin enough to have an eating disorder.”

Paige: Oh wow!

Christy: Yeah, and so I had cracked the door open. Who knows if she had been really helpful to talk to and compassionate and validating maybe it would have avoided this whole other trajectory that I went down. Who’s to say? But because she responded that way, I basically shut the door and didn’t want to open it again or a long time.

Paige: Wow! That’s so crazy to think about. What if one little thing happened differently. Because you spent how many years total bouncing in and out of that gluten free…

Christy: Oh gosh, I think maybe like, six or seven years.

Paige: Wow!

Christy: And the whole trajectory of the eating disorder was about ten years from start to total recovery.

Paige: So, before we get into talking about your turning point, I just want to hear what was going on with you when you were in the midst of the gluten free back and forth? What was that like mentally for you and emotionally and socially.

Christy: Oh my God it was so exhausting and it was so curtailing of my social life and it also put me in this really weird position of being this person who had to assert my needs, which was always hard for me and part of what made me vulnerable to the eating disorder because there’s certainly personality traits or genetic predispositions that make people more vulnerable to eating disorders and one of them is people pleasing tendencies and perfectionistic tendencies and for me that manifested as not wanting to rock the boat, wanting to always be cool, wanting to always be the cool girl who could do anything and go along with anything and be fun. So, it was really hard to have to be like, “Oh, I can’t eat that, I need to have this.” Or to assert my needs. But it was sort of an interesting dynamic because, of course, everyone wants to assert their needs and having that validated, right? And be seen and honored for what they need and so I actually did that from some people in my life. Some of my friends and my boyfriend at the time’s mother were so accepting of it and so validating of like, “Oh, you need this gluten free food, I went out and bought you this or we’re going to do a gluten free Thanksgiving…” my ex boyfriend’s mom made gluten free Thanksgiving for me.

Paige: Aww! That’s nice of her.

Christy: Yeah, so sweet. So, I think in a way that stuff all played a role in perpetuating it because as uncomfortable was it was to assert my needs, it also, with certain people I felt so validated that I wanted to hang on to that and it was really uncomfortable to then have to go back later and be like, “Just kidding. I actually wasn’t gluten free. Actually I don’t know what was going on with me.” Because at the time I didn't’ really understand what was really happening.

Paige: Yeah, that would be really hard to admit that.

Christy: It was really hard.

Paige: After ten years or six or seven or whatever.

Christy: Well, and on and off too. I think the most hard core I went with it, I was like fully embracing the idea of gluten free and having an identity as someone who is gluten free for about a year straight. And then to have to be like, “I don’t know you guys, I don’t know.” For awhile, all of my friends, if I hadn’t seen them for awhile, if I’d see them again they’d ask, “So are you doing gluten now? What’s the story with you and gluten?”

Paige: Oh, so it was a big talking point, almost.

Christy: It was a big talking point.

Paige: So, Christy, what led to you taking a different direction?

Christy: It’s interesting. It wasn’t just one thing. It was a bunch of stuff that came together at the right time. And I’m super grateful that it did. One thing was I got a job at Gourmet Magazine and suddenly I was working with some of the most amazing food writers.

Paige: Decadent, delicious food too!

Christy: Some of the most amazing cooks in the world and some of the most respected food writers and editors and I did not want to mess up. I didn’t want to look like a weirdo. I didn’t want to tell anyone about all my back and forth and another quality that I think a lot of people who’ve had eating disorders tend to share is sensitivity. Sensitivity to other people’s reactions and wants and needs. I certainly picked up from some people that I worked with that they were already suspecting me a little bit. As the newbie, as a new person coming into this environment with mostly online food experience, not like a huge long history of being a food writer and editor. Some of these people had been working at Gourmet for 30-35 years. Some people had spent their entire career there. So, I was very hesitant to let any of my weirdness around food show.

Paige: Especially because all of the back and forth you had been through, I’m sure there were some negative experiences associated with being back and forth and, like you said, assert your needs and the awkwardness that can sometimes come from people not getting it.

Christy: Totally! Yeah, yeah, I didn’t want to open up about any of that because I felt, sort of, ashamed of it. The upshot of that is when I was at work, I walked the walk, sort of, against my will. I ate the food, I didn’t want to look weird. I just sucked it up and did what I needed to do. Of course, that had ramifications emotionally and of course outside of work I definitely was more fearful around food and I also tried to be gluten free outside of work for awhile, but I think it just started to chip away at my disordered thinking because I had this meal support; this exposure therapy every day at work.

Paige: So, was it like, you realized you could eat some pasta and you would be just fine?

Christy: Yeah! And I didn’t even consciously realize that, but I just practiced it again and again and then down the line, I sort of, looked at it and thought, “Oh, right, I’m still okay.” My weight didn’t just go up and keep going up as I had feared. I remember there were a few really cool moments. I think one of the biggest factors in this turning point was I finally opened up to my New York therapist about my eating issues. Because I had come to her for anxiety and I had come to her for a break up from that first guy that first foodie boyfriend, when I broke up with him that’s when I sought therapy in New York. It took years! I think I had been working with her for over a year, at least, maybe even two years, I don’t know; until I told her about the food issues. I think because I was working at Gourmet and surrounded by food every day it just came up in conversation and I think she was a great therapist and I think she was astute enough to be like, “Hey, what’s up with that. Tell me more about this judgement you just made about your body” or “Tell me about this judgement you just made about food.” We started to actually unravel some of that in therapy and we started doing a lot of a deeper work that I needed to do on self compassion and developing a strong sense of self and through that work it just started to become very cognitively dissonant not to approach my choices of food with self compassion. I was trying to practice that in a lot of other areas in my life and I just thought why am I not doing this with food?

Paige: So, it just started to make sense. Or the eating disorder just started to not work for you anymore.

Christy: Totally. And it’s funny because it never worked that well. There was a moment in time when it seemed to plug into some needs that I had pretty easily, but then it was a very short lived experience. After the first couple of months it really didn’t work for me, and yet, I just didn’t know an alternative and I was clinging to a brick in the ocean instead of grabbing the life raft and I didn’t know the life raft was there.

Paige: Oh, that’s a cool analogy. I like that. Good job!

Christy: Oh thank, I just made that up.

Paige: Oh you did? That was good! So, I want to ask some questions about your work now and then I have some follow up questions, just in general about gluten and I think this is really important and interesting thing to explore as a theme. Like you said, this is kind of the peak of it’s popularity or hype or whatever you want to call it. I think let’s first start with talking about what you do now and how you became a dietician and I’m curious to hear about if becoming a dietician and going through all those courses in school, what did that do to your relationship with food?

Christy: It’s such a great question and it’s very complicated, actually. I think it had some good aspects, some really good aspects and some really challenging ones. So, Gourmet folded in 2009. Conde Nast closed the magazine and before that happened we all were sort of hearing rumblings like anyone who is paying attention to the news on this stuff was like, “Oh this magazine closed, that magazine closed.” The economy’s in crisis. Conde Nast is bringing in a consulting firm to look at it’s bottom line. So we all were kind of aware that something could happen. I had been there for two years at that point, but I was one of the last people hired so I was like, “Well, last hired, first fired” I better figure out a plan B in case something happens. So I started to take a really good look at what I wanted to do with my life and sort of feeling like journalism wasn’t a very stable career to be in, but also the stuff that I had gone through with food and the writing that I had done on nutrition and public health the food policy stuff that I was writing about was really interesting to me and I thought that would be really interesting to go into that as a career.

Paige: What point was this in your recovery?

Christy: This was a month after I finally gave up the gluten free thing, for good.

Paige: Okay, so pretty soon after.

Christy: It was really soon after, yeah it was kind of interesting how it all tied together. I think I had a few little moments that just made me be like, I need to be normal about food now. As soon as that really sunk in I made this pivot about thinking about going to school. I don’t know if I fully related, but maybe subconsciously somewhat? Like I was ready, finally to think about it. So I applied to a program at NYU to get a Master of Public Health and Nutrition and a Dietitian License because I thought, I might want to work in policy, I might want to seek clients individually, this program would let me do both and explore which of those things is more appealing. I applied, I got accepted in September 2009 the program started and for three weeks I was going to school full time at night and working full time during the day and I was dying. I actually told my managing editor after about three week after, “I don’t think I can do this anymore. I think I need to give my notice.” and he was like, “Okay, hold the phone for a minute because something’s going on, I don’t know what yet, but something;s coming down the pipeline, so let me figure it out and if we do need to cut more people you can be one of the ones we lose, but I don’t want to have you quit before that happens.” So I thought, okay cool. I think I told him that on a Friday and then on the following Monday they announced that Gourmet was folding. So then I was back in school full time.

Paige: Wow, that’s some timing.

Christy: Pretty amazing timing. And so then I was suddenly immersed in all this research on public health and nutrition and learning the nit