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Eating disorders (ED) are complex bio-psycho-social illnesses impacting a person’s physiological and psychological health and wellbeing. As such, successful ED treatment typically requires a collaborative approach by a team of specialists (e.g., medical doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, nutritionists and more).
One important member of the interdisciplinary ED treatment team is the nutritionist or registered dietitian. Unfortunately, though nutritionists are an integral part of the ED treatment team, recent research shows some nutritionists and dietitians lack the confidence and knowledge they need to effectively treat patients with EDs, suggesting nutritionists may need more training in eating disorders .
Their Role in Eating Disorder Treatment
The role of the nutritionist is to help individuals in ED recovery develop a healthier relationship with food and eating. They do this by challenging and reorienting the client’s disordered and false beliefs surrounding food, eating, and weight.
The nutritionist is also given the important task of helping the client change their behaviors around food and eating. This often looks like creating meal plans, helping the client explore hunger and fullness cues, and educating them about nutrition, metabolism, and healthy body image.
In short, nutritionists play an integral role in eating disorder recovery. As the American Dietetic Association states, “nutritional counseling by a registered dietitian (RD) is an essential component of team treatment of patients with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other eating disorders […]” .
The Training Gap in Nutritionist Education
Despite the important role nutritionists play in ED treatment and recovery, recent research suggests some nutritionists and registered dietitians are not receiving adequate eating disorder training . For example, a study was recently conducted on 150 newly graduated dietitians (77 percent) and final year dietitian students (21 percent) enrolled in an Australian nutrition and dietetics university program .
The goal of the study was twofold: 1) examine how confident, prepared, and professionally developed dietitian students and recent graduates are in the area of eating disorder treatment and care; 2) uncover the training needs of dietitians and nutritionists in the area of eating disorders.
The study results showed that 81 percent of respondents reported a lack of confidence in treating patients with an eating disorder, while 95 percent said they did not feel confident implementing various eating disorder treatment approaches such as Motivational Interviewing . Additionally, approximately 96 percent of respondents said they needed further training and education in the area of eating disorders.
Expanding Nutritionist ED Training
As this study and other research indicate, some nutritionists enter their field of work lacking the confidence, knowledge, and skills they need to effectively help patients with EDs . Fortunately, there are numerous ways nutritionists can gain more knowledge and skills in the area of EDs.
For example, the above study revealed that students and recent graduates who were previously exposed to patients with an eating disorder were nearly five times more likely to feel confident in the area of eating disorders than those who had no prior exposure to ED patients . This finding suggests the value of intentionally integrating ED treatment into dietetic practice programs.
The study also highlighted other important ways nutritionists can expand their ED training and confidence, including networking with other dietitians/nutritionists, working with a more experienced nutritionist who has clinical experience with EDs, attending ED workshops and online webinars, taking additional online courses, and visiting ED service websites. By expanding their knowledge of eating disorders, nutritionists and dietitians will be more confident in the area of EDs and will be better equipped to provide effective dietetic care to patients with eating disorders.
References: Denman, E., Parker, E.K., Ashley, M.A. et al. Understanding training needs in eating disorders of graduating and new graduate dietitians in Australia: an online survey. J Eat Disord 9, 27 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-021-00380-1
 Ozier, A. D., Henry, B. W., & American Dietetic Association (2011). Position of the American Dietetic Association: nutrition intervention in the treatment of eating disorders. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(8), 1236–1241. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2011.06.016
 Denman, E., Parker, E.K., Ashley, M.A. et al. Understanding training needs in eating disorders of graduating and new graduate dietitians in Australia: an online survey. J Eat Disord 9, 27 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-021-00380-1
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published April 19, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 19, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC