I’ve been a member of the Clean-Plate Club for as long as I can remember. When it comes to eating, my perspective is the opposite of less is more. I live for seconds, thrive on thirds, and associate feeling stuffed with pure happiness. If it isn’t obvious, I love food.
Over the years, I’ve also developed a love and curiosity for health and what being “healthy” means for me. I’ve tried nearly every cleanse, almost every diet, and while my eating habits have certainly improved from when I used to supersize my fries, my appetite has never changed. Because of that, I’ve always associated my hunger with just being me. It felt like a core part of my personality as opposed to an issue with my health—or, spoiler alert, my gut.
But before we dive into the science, let’s rewind.
In January, I started seeing a nutritionist. I knew I was a relatively healthy eater, but I wanted to learn tactics for taming my insatiable hunger and get guidance on how to optimize my energy. I’ve also struggled with body image issues for as long as I can remember, and with my 30th birthday approaching, I figured it was time to nip that negativity in the bud.
That’s when I found Michelle Miller, MSACN. I had heard rumors of her magic and loved that her approach to nutrition was tailored to individuals—their blood work, in particular.
In our first session, I spent an hour sharing my history of eating—the good, the bad, the gorging. When I spoke about my hunger, my hankering for sweets, and my inability to leave even crumbs on my plate, Miller simply nodded. I waited for her to laugh at the fact that I could eat like a professional athlete and then some. Instead, she responded with a question.
“Have you taken many antibiotics in the last few years?”
I paused, both surprised by her question and reluctant to tell her the truth. I had taken several—strong ones like ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic that in recent years has been shown to weaken the immune system and damage muscles, joints, and nerves in some patients. I also have selective IgA deficiency, an immunodeficiency that means I’m more susceptible to infections than the average human being. Because of that, what starts as a common cold can quickly escalate to strep throat, and UTIs become kidney infections overnight. Cue cipro and Z-Paks, another cure-all antibiotic, which I took like vitamins for years.
I knew from Miller’s response that I was in for a rude awakening about these so-called superdrugs. After all, it probably wasn't a good thing that this medical professional responded, simply, “Wow."
“Antibiotics are really effective because they wipe out the bacteria in the gut,” explained Miller. “But they don’t distinguish between wiping out of the good and the bad. They wipe out everything. And when you wipe out everything, your gut is left in a really vulnerable position.”
I was trying to take in the science, but what I really heard was that when it comes to overeating: It’s not me; it’s my gut. It was music to my ears. To think, all these years I’d been critiquing my own willpower, when something else was at the root of this.
But it wasn’t just antibiotics.
“Part of balancing the microbiome is getting the healthy bacteria in the gut to feed off of healthy foods and fibers versus the bad bacteria feeding off of sugar,” said Miller. “And that bad bacteria that’s feeding off sugars and starches—that’s the cycle we’re often trying to break.”
The cycle she referred to was one I knew well. What I felt was never-ending hunger and cravings, but what I was apparently experiencing was an imbalance in my gut.
“I often find that if someone isn’t getting the right things or is getting too much of the wrong things, they’ll have a heartier appetite because your body is trying to fill that void,” said Miller.
To put me on the path to gut recovery, Miller recommended a 10-day elimination diet. At first I wasn’t enthused, but as I learned about the diet and rationale behind it, I warmed to it.
Unlike many detoxes and diets I’d tried before, I could eat a lot of food—delicious food. I just couldn’t eat dairy, wheat, soy, nuts, eggs, high-fat meats, most sugars, or anything processed, and had to steer clear of coffee and alcohol (a.k.a. inflammatory foods).
It may sound limiting, but a meal plan with smoothies, fresh salads, lean protein, and healthy grains was right up my alley. Not to mention, the surge in popularity of anti-inflammatory diets meant there was an abundance of resources and recipes at my disposal.
I saw positive changes almost immediately. While the first day left me feeling light headed and lethargic—hello, withdrawal, it’s me, Tara—it passed quickly. By day two, I’d transformed into what felt like a new person. I bounced out of bed when my alarm went off, I was happier, more patient, and the craziest part: I was full! Most of my meals resulted in leftovers, I didn’t crave snacks, and I felt satisfied while eating—a sensation I don’t think I’d ever truly experienced. And while I was hankering for a glass of wine, I wasn’t craving my weekly sweet.
The next time I saw Miller, I was raving. “I’m the best version of me,” I said. “I don’t want it to go away!”
Previous cleanse, detox, and diet attempts always ended the same way for me: with a massive binge session followed by a swift return to my pre-diet weight and eating habits. Nothing ultimately changed, I never felt better, and I always went straight back to the ice cream tub—headfirst. I was worried that this too would have an unhappy ending.
As I started reintroducing foods into my diet, I waited for the abrupt end to my high. But even after eating eggs, nuts, gluten, and dairy, and drinking coffee and booze here and there, I felt pretty good. Even more, my hunger wasn’t raging and the desire to binge was tamed.
In the following weeks, I mostly stuck to anti-inflammatory foods, but I also added small servings of eggs, nuts, and coffee back into my diet regularly—and indulged in dairy, sugar, and gluten nearly every weekend. It’s been several months, and neither my insatiable hunger nor my hanger have returned. I’ve had indulgent weekends and cleaned my plate on occasion, but I haven’t really overeaten. My body is still signaling that I’m full, and I’m listening.
So what exactly happened?
“A lot of times when we eat foods that create inflammation, like high sugar foods or foods that are gluten-based, it can actually make us feel hungrier,” said Miller.
With a gut damaged by years of antibiotic intake and stuffed with inflammatory foods, no wonder I had episodes of eating uncontrollably.
“It isn’t so much about how much we’re eating,” added Miller. “It’s more about what we’re eating.”
I’ll always be a food lover and someone who lives to eat instead of eats to live. That’s just me. But overeating wasn’t, and isn’t, part of who I am, and now I know how to make sure it isn’t in my future. There isn’t a tub of ice cream I regret (OK, maybe there are one or two), but learning how to enjoy a few bites can be just as fun—and way better for that precious gut of mine.