People that have struggled with eating disorders, especially for long periods of time, often lose touch with healthy eating habits. Reforming healthy eating habits during the recovery process can therefore require a thoughtful, concerted effort.
Working toward healthy choices and increased physiological health should be goals for everyone, not just those recovering form an eating disorder or disordered eating. Below, you will find recommendations adapted from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and recommended by our registered dietitians. These are excellent guidelines for long-term, healthy choices:
1. Eat a variety of foods, even if in very small amounts. This may seem simple, but it is of tremendous importance to anyone with an eating disorder. For many, certain foods have become associated with comfort or safety, while others are avoided as unsafe. As a result, food variety is lost.
2. Eat frequently to keep blood sugar balanced. This means trying not to go more than four hours without a meal or snack. A balanced snack consists of a carbohydrate source and a protein/fat source. Examples of balanced snacks include: apple with nut butter, hummus and pita, or nuts and dried fruit. Keeping blood sugars balanced also helps us make better food choices, as we are more likely to go for the most convenient foods when desperately hungry.
3. Balance the food you eat with physical activity. The key word here is balance. Physical activity is a wonderful companion to healthy eating, as long as the activity is in balance. For those who are underweight, the goal is to improve your weight by increasing it. For those who are overweight, the goal is to improve your weight by decreasing it. Physical activity also works to increase metabolism. Often, metabolism is slowed by an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns such as binging and restricting.
4. When making food choices, include plenty of variety. Our dietitians recommend eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds. A balanced meal contains a protein source, a grain or starchy vegetable, fresh vegetables, and a healthy fat. Fruit makes an excellent dessert. Eating a variety of foods keeps meals interesting and enjoyable.
5. Eat breakfast every day. Even if you don’t feel hungry for breakfast at first, getting yourself in the habit of eating breakfast means training your body to eventually wake up hungry. Eating breakfast actually jump-starts your metabolism for the day. If you’re in fasting mode, your metabolism decreases to conserve energy. By starting your day with breakfast, you allow your metabolism to run at a higher pace, producing more energy. A balanced breakfast should include a variety of high-fiber and nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits, nuts, eggs, and dairy.
6. Make food choices that are low in fat and cholesterol. This advice is particularly helpful to those with bulimia or compulsive overeating. Many of the foods you choose for comfort may be extremely high in fat. Processed fast foods are also high in fats.
7. Make foods choices that are moderate in sugar content. Again, sweets and carbohydrates are often the binge foods of choice for bulimics and overeaters. Hyper-charging your system with sugars increases blood sugar, which results in an increase in the production of insulin. When insulin elevates, blood sugar drops, and appetite surges, perpetuating a cycle of bingeing.
8. Make food choices that are moderate in salt content. Many bulimics and overeaters will alternate between sweet and salty foods during a binge. Be aware of your eating patterns and whether you are establishing a pattern of alternating between sweet and salty.
9. If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. For some people dealing with food issues, alcohol has become a way of self-medicating, as it numbs both physical and emotional pain. For others, alcohol is considered a safe substance to ingest. Because compulsive behaviors may come in groups, those with compulsivity around food need to be especially careful of the potential for abusing alcohol.
10. Be intentional about your meal environment. How we feel affects our ability to digest what we eat. Stress and anxiety while eating can lead to digestive distress and exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. That’s why it’s important to be intentional about where and how you eat. Strive to prepare a calm, relaxing place and atmosphere for eating. This will promote healthy digestion and absorption of nutrients. Eat at your table instead of in your car, in front of the television, or computer. Avoid distractions and allow yourself to enjoy your meal.
11. Listen to your body’s signals. Many people mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. Take time to consciously observe the sensation of hunger and fullness. By listening to your body through the day and before and after meals, you will learn to understand and distinguish the signals. Eating disorders and disordered eating scramble those natural symbols. Eating meals and snacks at regular times can help to get this mechanism working optimally again. It takes practice and courage. Be patient and consistent with your nutrition to help rebuild this mechanism.
12. Slow down to eat. Set aside the proper amount of time to eat instead of rushing and slamming down food during a hectic day. Remember, it takes twenty minutes for your hunger and satiety mechanism to send the signal to the rest of your body that you’re full. Slow down and allow your body to let you know it’s satisfied.
If you or a loved one are recovering from an eating disorder and need professional help to reestablish eating habits and a healthy relationship with food, The Center • A Place Of HOPE Eating Disorder Team can help. Call 1-888-771-5166 / 425-771-5166 or fill out our contact form and someone will be in touch with you soon.
Excerpts taken from Gregory L. Jantz, Hope, Help & Healing From Eating Disorders: A Whole-Person Approach To Treatment of Anorexia, Bulimia, and Disordered Eating, WaterBrook 2010.