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June 26, 2024

The Role of Nutrition in Eating Disorder Treatment

The Role of Nutrition in Eating Disorder Treatment

The Emily Program’s clients generally enter eating disorder treatment mired in food rules and rituals. Their mindsets around food tend to follow a pattern of dichotomous extremes. Types of food and eating behaviors are labeled either “good” or “bad.” Food consumption might alternate between periods of total restriction and severe overconsumption. One might hyperfocus on food when eating or disconnect entirely. Often, the “perfect conditions” must be met to eat, with rigidity around the location, specific foods or food groups, and other people present while eating. Eating can feel like a test that one passes or fails. Disordered eating and eating disorders weaken the mind-body connection, elevating the power of these intense cognitive distortions as the mind takes over as a micromanager of the body’s needs.

At The Emily Program, our multidisciplinary care team creates a safe space to work through the challenges and explore the freedoms that come with a return to balanced eating. Our whole-person care approach helps clients develop greater self-awareness as we work to restore healthy eating behaviors. Through the course of treatment, our clients expand their capacity to express and modulate difficult emotions without reliance on self-defeating food rules and rituals — which is key to sustained eating disorder recovery.

The Emily Program’s Nutrition Philosophy: A “Can Eat Culture”

At The Emily Program, we approach nutrition from an inclusive perspective — one that bucks damaging cultural messages about food, rejects the moralized “eat this, not that” mentality, and encourages flexibility and variety with eating.

Our nutrition treatment follows an evidence-backed “Can Eat Culture” paradigm which emphasizes balance and acceptance of all foods. This neutral approach to eating cuts through the food judgment clouding many of our clients’ eating decisions. Instead, the focus is on practicing enjoyment, flexibility, nourishment, and fun with food.

Unlike a disordered eating mindset, within a “Can Eat Culture,” the different nutritional profiles of food do not determine what one can or cannot eat. Fats, fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, convenience foods, desserts — all types of foods provide benefits and some form of energy to keep our bodies functioning. Eating for reasons beyond nutritional content, such as for connection, celebration, community, pleasure, and nostalgia, is part of a peaceful relationship with food. 

Our “Can Eat Culture” also respects and acknowledges the unique nutritional needs of each person, as well as the diversity of cultural experiences and preferences. We strive to support individualization and personal choice that enables nourishment and promotes recovery, which we recognize may vary throughout the recovery journey.

How We Build a “Can Eat Culture” in Eating Disorder Treatment

Using the “Can Eat Culture” framework as a guide, The Emily Program’s treatment programs equip clients with the sustainable recovery skills needed for a full, well-nourished life.

Meal Plans

Our meal plans are individualized and dietitian-designed to meet the needs of each client over the course of treatment. No matter the level of care a client receives, our registered dietitians are here to develop a meal plan that provides necessary structure and nourishment, while also offering appropriate amounts of choice, variety, and flexibility. The Emily Program can accommodate most dietary restrictions, and our dietitians use their expertise to assess the origins of an individual’s dietary preferences.

Our dietitians work in partnership with our clients to create personalized meal plans. As clients walk through the treatment process, they will use nutrition therapy sessions with their dietitian to learn the advantages of incorporating all foods into recovery eating. Nutrition education is a fundamental part of the recovery process. This knowledge helps our clients reappraise any misinformation about nutrition, challenge previously held harmful food ideas, establish factual beliefs about food, and practice gratitude for their bodies by adequately fueling themselves.

Family Meals

We know that family support is an essential aspect of treatment. That’s why we provide parents and communities of support with the education, skills, and knowledge needed to continue to support their loved ones during and after treatment.

Family meals are a core aspect of treatment at The Emily Program. During these unique shared meals, family members are empowered and leveraged as agents of change by planning, preparing and eating meals together. To help families ease the transition out of treatment, we offer family dining rooms at our treatment centers to simulate a homelike environment.

Mealtime can be challenging in the context of an eating disorder, often provoking complicated emotions and resistance. Family members can lean on the wisdom and guidance of nearby therapists and dietitians to practice supporting and coaching their loved ones. Often, the best way to be there for a struggling loved one at mealtime is by modeling a positive relationship with food. We spend time educating families about our “Can Eat Culture” model to encourage self-examination of any subconscious food biases or judgments. When families work to shift their language around food to one of neutrality, they reduce the risk of harm to their loved ones in recovery. Spending time to foster a healthy, balanced relationship with all foods can be key to insulating a loved one from the harms of disordered eating.

Hands-On Culinary Experiences

Individuals with eating disorders often struggle to prepare food for themselves. Eating disorder thoughts and behaviors can invade the meal preparation process and continue to the table. Our hands-on culinary experiences are staff-facilitated and designed to establish joyful and autonomous food encounters. They provide a space for our clients to explore and overcome intimidation around preparing and consuming a variety of foods – both cognitively and through action – by cooking and eating alongside other clients and staff.

These unique interactive opportunities help our clients work toward a neutral or positive experience in the kitchen. The kitchen environment itself is an important therapeutic component, replicating practical, real-life experiences to build self-reliance and confidence in recovery.

Eating disorders can wreak havoc on an individual’s relationship with food. With the right support and eating disorder treatment modalities, restoring healthy eating behaviors and building a sense of freedom and choice around food is possible. If you suspect one of your clients needs help repairing their relationship with food and eating, please call one of our professionals at 888-364-5977 or refer them through our online form.



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