What is trauma-informed nutrition and how can we use it to support recovery?
Exploring the complex ways traumatic experiences impact us, and the essential reason why practitioners and clients must be aware of it
Discussions concerning trauma tend to centre around the mental, emotional, and physical impacts of traumatic events. But in recent years, this has expanded to explore the relationship between nutrition, trauma, and physical and mental health. Let’s take a closer look.
What is trauma?
The charity Mind speaks of emotional or physiological trauma as the result of very stressful, frightening, or distressing events which cause lasting harm, even if the harmful effects are not immediately obvious.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are harmful events that can occur from as early as in the womb through to age 17, and do not have to be remembered by the child to be traumatic. Examples include experiencing violence, abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction, and adversity including bullying, poverty, war, natural disaster, discrimination, pandemics, medical trauma, and involvement with child protective services. According to the California Centre for Public Health, up to six in 10 people have experienced at least one ACE, and one in six have experienced at least four.
Expanding trauma from the individual to the collective experience, Historical Trauma is that which is experienced by ethnic, racial, or cultural groups over generations – such as slavery, the Holocaust, and colonisation. Then there is Systemic Trauma, which refers to the environments and institutions that contribute to traumatic experiences.
Trauma is multilayered, and has the potential to impact our daily lives. The lasting effects are present irrespective of how or when the trauma occurred. So, the question is: how can trauma-informed nutrition support clients more effectively?
Trauma and nutrition
For some, adverse food-related experiences can be a source of trauma. This includes unreliable or unpredictable meals, imposed restriction or control of food,body shaming, and reward or punishment using food. Trauma may also impact food habits and result in eating disorders and disordered eating, food addictions, high fat, salt or sugar diets, an over reliance on convenience food, and poor food budgeting and planning.
According to Mind, people who have experienced trauma have an increased risk of chronic and long-term illness, including severe obesity, heart disease, strokes, and diabetes. To effectively support their clients, nutrition practitioners who aim to address root causes of illness understand that trauma is a contributory root cause for illness and disease.
The gut/brain axis is central to discussions about trauma and nutrition. Through the vagus nerve, there is a two-way communication between the gut and the brain using hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which influence our feelings and mood. It explains why we may feel nervous jitters in our stomach, have looser stools when stressed, or feel nauseous when in distress. Our gut microbiome directly impacts these hormonal messages, so a healthy gut can support this process.
This approach acknowledges the role adversity plays in a person’s life, recognises symptoms of trauma, and promotes resilience. As noted by the California Department for Public Health, trauma-informed nutrition understands that unhealthy food choices, poor health outcomes, and chronic disease may be a result of trauma, rather than individual choice. In this way, some of the stigma, shame, and blame associated with discussions around diet and health, can be avoided.
Trauma-informed nutrition in practice
Trauma-informed nutrition is still an emerging area, as we start to understand more about the mind-body connection, the gut/brain axis, and the gut microbiome. We’re also learning more about how healing the gut can support mental health, such as the benefits of supporting the gut microbiome for people with depression and anxiety.
In practice, trauma-informed nutrition:
Acknowledges the role of individual, historical, and systemic trauma on health outcomes and food habits.
Encourages healing and a healthy relationship with food.
Focuses on holistic health and wellbeing, rather than BMI and obesity.
Reduces the emphasis on individual behaviour change, and focuses on the individual’s ability and willingness to take on new behaviours.
Recognises that nutrition interventions may be triggering to some, e.g. asking clients for their weight or measurements.
Acknowledges clients’ skills and strengths, while aiming to reduce shame, anxiety, confusion, and tension.
Practices cultural humility, while addressing conscious and unconscious bias.
Dr Gabor Maté, whose work centres around childhood development and the impacts of trauma on the body, sums up the far reaching impacts of trauma: “Trauma is not what happens to you. It’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.” Trauma-informed nutrition is a sure way of treating trauma from the inside out.
For more advice and guidance about nutrition, visit the Nutritionist Resource or speak to a qualified nutritionist.