The concept of nutrition and healthy eating is increasingly pervasive in the United States, particularly as our country is faced with both an emerging obesity “epidemic” as well as a startling rise in the number of men, women and children struggling with eating disorders. Each March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics seeks to focus attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits during National Nutrition Month. In addition to underscoring the important role that nutrition plays in our everyday lives, National Nutrition Month is an ideal opportunity to gain insight and perspective on the importance of nutrition in eating disorders treatment and recovery.
Nutrition plays a fundamental role in the treatment of an eating disorder. Patients’ thoughts and behaviors around food are generally negative and destructive, and many individuals need to restore weight in order to regain the clarity of mind necessary to fully engage in therapy. Even for those patients who are at a normal weight at the time they seek eating disorders treatment, nutrition counseling and education are critical in addressing issues related to their underlying relationship with food.
In general, nutrition counseling seeks to help patients overcome their fear of food and eating by providing support and structure during meals, education on a balanced pattern of nutrition and collaborative care to achieve a healthy weight for optimal recovery. For individuals struggling with eating disorders, there are no “good” or “bad” foods—all foods are fine in moderation as part of a diet characterized by balance and variety.
These notions are reinforced by Marla Scanzello, MS, RD, director of dietary services for Eating Recovery Center.
“The primary goal of nutrition counseling for individuals with eating disorders is to help them normalize eating and optimize health. Dietitians also challenge the distorted thoughts their patients often have and correct misinformation about food and diets that is often perpetuated by the media.”
There are various levels of care in eating disorders treatment, ranging from inpatient hospitalization for severely underweight or medically compromised patients to occasional outpatient appointments with a dietitian, which is usually appropriate for individuals in recovery or those with more minor food and body image issues. At each level of care, nutrition counseling plays a different role. At the inpatient level of care, dietitians may work closely with internal medicine physicians, psychiatrists and therapists to help the patient restore sufficient weight so that they may engage meaningfully in therapy. Whereas, a dietary professional working with an individual on an outpatient basis may lead group education classes or participate in a supervised meal, providing support and information to the patient as they plate and portion his or her food.
“For example, a patient in Eating Recovery Center’s Partial Hospitalization Program will have the opportunity to participate in various activities that are integral in fostering lasting recovery from a nutritional perspective,” explained Scanzello. “From dining out in restaurants during staff-supported outings to learning about healthy cooking and food preparation techniques in cooking classes at the Center, these activities nurture the knowledge and skills necessary to help patients sustain a life of recovery.”
When it comes to food and nutrition, patients oftentimes experience new, unexpected challenges when they leave treatment that they were not anticipating. Nutrition counseling is an additional form of support in eating disorders recovery, and eating disorders professionals like Scanzello encourage individuals to take advantage of the numerous supportive resources available. For example, major holidays and family meals can be stressful food events for individuals in recovery from an eating disorder. During these times of stress, working with dietitians can help individuals strategize on how to manage these occasions while still following their meal plans to ensure they are consuming necessary nutrition.
Scanzello also acknowledges that many individuals find nutrition counseling beneficial even when they are not struggling with or recovering from a diagnosed eating disorder.
“When individuals begin eliminating entire food groups from their diets or become preoccupied with food, weight or exercise, it can be a sign that they should speak to a dietitian,” continued Scanzello. “Dietitians can also help address exercise behaviors, working with patients to ensure a healthy balance between the amount and types of food an individual consumes and the frequency or intensity at which he or she exercises.”
In observance of National Nutrition Month, individuals can all take an opportunity to evaluate their relationship with food and their bodies. Regardless of individual struggles with eating disorders, it is important for everyone to consider the role of balance, variety and moderation in a healthy lifestyle, and to challenge common beliefs about “good” and “bad” foods.
“Tweet” or “like” this article to share information about National Nutrition Month and eating disorders recovery with your community.