When it comes to eating disorders I often have a been-there-done-that-bought-the-t-shirt attitude. What I forget is that despite being around since at least the Greeks, these pernicious disorders are constantly evolving to take advantage of current trends and products. So it was with some surprise I read an e-mail from a brave and beautiful reader. She writes:
The past few days I’ve been extremely bloated with water weight, edema I suppose. It’s everywhere, but most noticeable in my legs, fingers and belly, but definitely water weight. I know you’ve done a lot of reading on eating healthy and on different diets and such, so if it’s okay and not too triggering for you, I was curious about your opinion about what might be causing this. I don’t eat a lot of salt – I don’t like salty-tasting things and try to eat as little preservatives as possible, so I’m definitely not consuming excess sodium, and I drink several liters of water a day (usually 6 or so), so I’m not dehydrated. I do binge and purge; I had it under control for a bit but the fast few days have been doing it again, but it has NEVER in all my years of ED behavior made me this bloated with water weight. I’ve recently been taking fiber powder as a laxative, and I suppose taking an excess amount (a cup and a half some days, and a serving is two spoonfulls). It’s weird – I always said I would never take laxatives because it’s not “real” weight loss, yet I’m taking insane amounts of fiber (though in my head that’s not a laxative, just has a laxative effect). Part of me just wants to make the bloat from the b/p go away (and somehow thinks fiber will make that better instead of worse). A friend mentioned that excess fiber can actually cause bloating, and too much can have the reverse effect if you don’t drink enough water… but I do, and this is more water weight bloating than food weight. Is it possibly related to the fiber still, and do you have any ideas of what it could be or how to make it better? It’s been messing with my head since all my clothes are tight and it affects the number on the scale and is just plain uncomfortable. I don’t know if you have any experience with this or have read anything about this in all your research, but if you have any thoughts about it or ways to make it go away.
Can You Have Too Much Fiber?
The Harvard School of Public Health recommends 20-25 grams of fiber a day for women and 30-35 grams for men. However, they don’t really set an upper limit. For most of history getting too much roughage in one’s diet was not really a problem. In fact, most Americans get far less than the recommended daily amount. People eating real food find that fiber ends up being self-limiting. Sure lentils pack a whopping 16 grams of fiber per cup but anyone who has eaten an entire cup of lentils can tell you how that feels – after they return from multiple trips to the bathroom, that is. But in this day of Metamucil, Benefiber, and fiber-fortified cereals, granola bars, pop tarts, waters and even soups, people who trend towards the more-is-always-better school of thought can easily overdose on the stuff.
Fiber is a tricky thing. Too little and you end up being constipated – as all those strangely invasive commercials will tell you – not to mention that fiber helps with heart health, reduces diabetes and helps with irritable bowel symptoms among other things. But can you have too much fiber?
Excess fiber, generally defined as greater than 50 grams per day, has several well-documented effects. Besides the gastronomical effects (everything from explosive diarrhea, gas, and cramping), it can lead to vitamin deficiencies as it interferes with their absorption. Not to mention the excess bloating mentioned by the writer of the e-mail.
Using Fiber To Purge
The part of the e-mail that really caught my eye though was using fiber as a purging technique. Bulimics have long used emetics, laxatives, diuretics, exercise and even feeding tubes as ways of purging food from their systems. But taking a cup and a half of fiber powder (the equivalent of 90 grams of fiber) to achieve the laxative effect is one I’d never heard of before.
After thinking about it though, I can certainly see where the temptation lies. Both Gym Buddy Allison and I have O.D.’ed on fiber powder – weirdly on the exact same day, you should have heard that conversation at the gym! – and both of us did it out of a desire to use fiber to control our weight. The problem is that everywhere you look, fiber is the new “it” word for weight loss. Fiber “fills you up” and “triggers satiety” and even, as evidenced by Fiber Choice’s Weight Management tablets, help you “control your weight.”
I’ve bought into that marketing mania. If I have a choice between buying a regular granola bar or a “fiber bar”, I pick the fiber bar every time. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Except that all the extra fiber adds up and now my body is used to a lot of fiber and needs it to, you know, keep things moving. It’s funny how these things sneak up on you. Everything I’ve read says that if you eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains you’ll get all the fiber you need from your diet. So why the huge boom in fiber-enhanced products? I’m guessing it’s for the money. Either that or some ConAgra CEO finds “sharts” funny.