Eating Disorders: Healthy Eating

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  • Young men's version of this guide

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Eating Disorders Awareness

What is healthy balanced eating?

Healthy eating is important for both your mind and body. During the recovery process, work with your dietitian to help you learn balanced eating habits. The goal of eating is to keep your body nourished, energized, and strong. Eating in a balanced way helps you concentrate and learn in school, reach and maintain a healthy weight for you, grow to your maximum height, and keep your muscles and bones strong. An eating plan is not supposed to be strict; it is flexible and may differ from person to person and depending on your situation or environment. It involves incorporating regular meals and snacks during the day, eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full, and enjoying treats. To eat in the most beneficial way for your body, you must eat foods from all of the food groups (carbohydrates, protein, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and fats) because each food group has different benefits.

Carbohydrates: The carbohydrates in foods like grains and starchy vegetables supply your brain and your muscles with energy. They help keep your mind sharp and focused, and are needed for sports performance. Carbohydrates provide energy to all of the cells in your body and whole grains especially provide the fiber you need for normal digestion.

Dairy: Vitamin D and calcium-rich dairy foods help keep your bones strong. The protein in dairy foods also helps keep you full between meals. Soy milk is a diary alternative that provides similar amounts of these important nutrients for those who avoid cow’s milk for any reason.

Fruits/Veggies: These foods contain many important vitamins and minerals, and the fiber you need for normal digestion.

Protein: Protein has lots of important functions in your body such as nourishing your hair, repairing and building muscles, and making hormones and enzymes.  Protein helps you feel full after a meal or snack.  It also is important for fighting infections and healing wounds and cuts.

Fats: Fats found in oils (such as canola oil or olive oil), nuts, nut butters, and fish are great for your heart and your skin. Eating these and other fats such as cheese and butter with meals and snacks can boost your hormone levels, which may help regulate periods for people who menstruate or testosterone levels for males. Fats are also important for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E and K) which we get from other important sources like fruits and vegetables. They can also aid with bowel movements. Fat is also important for satiety (feeling full) between meals, and adds flavor to your meals.

Meal plans: Meal plans are designed to help you transition back to healthy eating. During treatment, you may get a meal plan from your dietitian that breaks down each meal into servings of food (called “exchanges”) from the different food groups. Each meal should include exchanges from all or most of the food groups, and the number of exchanges you need from each food group will be based on your specific nutritional needs. Your dietitian will help you design meals and snacks based on the exchanges on your meal plan that fit your individual needs. Long term recovery means moving away from meal plans and learning to follow your hunger cues.

Snacks: Snacks give you energy between meals and prevent you from getting overly hungry. Balanced snacks should be made of two or more food groups. Check out the sample list of snacks below. You can see how the snack ideas are made from different food groups such as carbohydrate, fat, dairy, fruit, vegetable, and protein groups.

Sample Snack List:

  • Banana with peanut butter (fruit/protein/fat)
  • Grapes and a cheese stick (fruit/dairy/fat)
  • Vanilla yogurt with strawberries (dairy/fruit)
  • Cheese and crackers (fat/dairy/grain)
  • Hummus and baby carrots (fat/protein/vegetable)
  • Nuts and dried fruit (fat/protein/fruit)

Grocery shopping: Try grocery shopping with someone you feel comfortable around. You can work with your dietitian to help set goals for trying new foods or reintroducing foods you used to enjoy. If going to the grocery store seems stressful, your dietitian can help you create a list of foods you plan to buy before you go. Once you are more comfortable with grocery shopping, take time to explore the whole grocery store and look for different brands or new foods to try.

Food journal: A food journal can help you keep track your hunger/fullness and your feelings at meal or snack time. Recording this information can also help you tune into your body’s hunger/fullness cues and help you identify areas where you need more support. Talk to your dietitian about whether keeping a food journal is right for you.

Cooking: Helping to plan your meals and snacks ahead of time helps minimize the stress that can be experienced during meal preparation. Your dietitian can assist you with meal planning and how to get the best support around meals and snacks.

Hunger and fullness: Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full will help your body balance its energy needs and keep you feeling comfortable. Part of normalizing your eating habits will first include the re-feeding process and then re-learning how to listen to your body. Throughout the recovery process, your dietitian can help you tune into your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Learning to both listen and understand your body’s cues takes time. Using a hunger and fullness scale can help you better understand your body. Rate your hunger level before you eat and after you finish. As you keep track of your hunger/fullness cues, you can start to see a pattern in your eating habits. Picture a range of hunger and fullness from 0-10 where “0” means absolutely starving and “10” means uncomfortably full. Ideally you will learn to eat when you are a “3” or “4” and stop eating when you reach a “7” or “8”. If you already keep a food journal, talk to your dietitian about including your hunger and fullness rating in your food journal.

10 Stuffed, painfully full
9 Extremely full
8 Very full
7 Full, don’t need to eat more
6 Somewhat full
5 Not hungry nor full
4 Somewhat hungry
3 Hungry, strong desire to eat
2 Very hungry
1 Extremely hungry
0 Starved, feeling faint and weak with hunger