Healthy eating is important for everyone’s mind and body. During the recovery process from an eating disorder, your child will usually work with a registered dietitian to normalize eating habits. The goal of healthy eating is to keep your child’s body nourished, energized, and strong. Eating in a healthy way will help your child to concentrate and learn in school, reach and maintain a healthy weight, grow to a maximum height, and stay strong for sports and other physical activities. Healthy eating is not supposed to be a strict diet plan; it is flexible and may differ from person to person. It involves eating regular meals and snacks, along with occasional treats. To eat healthy, your child should eat foods from all of the food groups (carbohydrates, proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and fats) because each group has different benefits.
Carbohydrates: The carbohydrates in foods like grains and starchy vegetables supply the brain and muscles with energy. They help keep our minds sharp and focused and are needed for sports performance.
Dairy: Vitamin D fortified and calcium–rich dairy foods help to keep our bones strong. The protein in dairy foods also helps keep us full between meals.
Fruits/Veggies: These foods contain many important vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber which is needed for normal digestion.
Protein: Protein has many important functions in the body from nourishing hair to repairing and building muscles.
Fats: Fats found in oils (such as canola oil or olive oil), nuts, and fish are great for our heart and skin and provide energy.
Meal Plans: Meal plans are designed to help your child transition back to healthy eating. During treatment, your child may get a meal plan from the registered 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 that your child needs (from each food group) will be based on his/her nutritional needs. The dietitian will help design meals and snacks based on the exchanges on the meal plan that fit your child’s individual needs. Meal plans are not typically used if the family is participating in family–based therapy (FBT).
Snacks: Healthy snacks give your child energy between meals and will prevent him/her from getting overly hungry. Healthy snacks should be made of two or more food groups. In the sample list of snacks below, you can see how the snack ideas are made from different food groups such as the carbohydrate, fat, dairy, fruit, vegetable, and protein groups.
Sample Snack List
- Banana with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter (fruit/protein/fat)
- Grapes and a cheese stick (fruit/dairy/fat)
- Vanilla yogurt with strawberries (dairy/fruit)
- Cheese and crackers (dairy/carbohydate/fat)
- Hummus and baby carrots (protein/vegetable/fat)
- Nuts and dried fruit (protein/fruit/fat)
Grocery shopping: Ask your child if he/she is comfortable going grocery shopping with you. Your child may be working with a registered dietitian to set goals for trying new foods or reintroducing foods. If going to the grocery store seems stressful for your child, he/she can create a list of foods with the dietitian beforehand. Once your child is more comfortable with grocery shopping, take time to explore the entire grocery store and look for different brands or new foods to try.
Food Journal: A food journal can help your child keep track of what is eaten and any feelings experienced at meal or snack times. Recording this information can help your child tune into his/her body’s hunger/fullness cues which will help to identify areas where more support is needed. Encourage your child to talk to the dietitian about whether keeping a food journal fits into the recovery plan.
Cooking: Planning your child’s meals and snacks ahead of time can minimize the stress during meal preparation. The dietitian can assist with meal planning and brainstorm about ways to give the best support around meals and snacks.
Hunger and Fullness: Eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we’re full helps our bodies balance energy needs and keeps us comfortable. Throughout the recovery process the dietitian can help your child re–learn how to tune into the body’s hunger and fullness cues. Learning to both listen and understand our body’s cues takes time. Using a hunger and fullness scale such as the scale below can help young people better understand their bodies. Hunger, before and after eating is rated, and thus, your child will begin to see a pattern in his/her eating habits. A scale will help your child learn to eat when feeling like a “3” and stop eating when reaching a “7.” If your child is already keeping a food journal, encourage them to talk to a dietitian about whether to include hunger and fullness ratings in the food journal.
Sample Hunger and Fullness Scale:
0 – Starved, feeling faint and weak with hunger
1 – Extremely hungry
2 – Very hungry
3 – Hungry, strong desire to eat
4 – Somewhat hungry
5 – Not hungry nor full
6 – Somewhat full
7 – Full, don’t need to eat more
8 – Very full
9 – Uncomfortably full
10 – Stuffed, painfully full
Truth: Unlike dieting, eating disorders aren’t just about losing weight. Eating disorders are psychological problems that may be used as a coping mechanism for issues such as trauma, loss of control, or abusive relationships.