Redefining Nutrition and Exercise in Eating Disorder Treatment

athletes running on the bridge

Eating disorders are complex psychiatric illnesses influenced by a variety of factors and stressors that impact a person in multiple ways, including physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

Research has demonstrated that comprehensive treatment including a multidisciplinary approach is one of the most effective ways to address these complex mental health disorders [1].

This includes medical treatment, nutrition therapy, psychotherapy and an individualized approach for other therapeutic modalities.

Understanding the Role of Nutrition and Exercise

One of the foundational keys to eating disorder recovery is helping a patient/client renegotiate their relationships with food and body through proper nutrition and movement.

Food and exercise are among the most commonly abused aspects in an eating disorder – whether anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Relearning the basics of feeding and the role of nutrition and exercise in recovery is an important step toward healing, helping a person develop life skills for long-term wellness and health.

Couple enjoying rest after exerciseThe role of nutrition and exercise in eating disorder treatment typically evolves throughout a person’s recovery process.

In the earlier and more acute stages of treatment, resolution of any medical symptoms and stabilization are highest priority.

Refeeding an individual who may be malnourished as a result of eating disorder behaviors is critical in the earliest phases of eating disorder treatment.

Medical nutrition therapy is applied with disease-specific treatment guidelines, depending on the stage of illness and treatment setting [2].

As weight is restored (when necessary) and malnutrition resolves, integrated nutrition education becomes fundamental for a patient who is working through fear foods, body dissatisfaction, and the many abnormal thoughts and behaviors that are associated with eating disorders.

Enjoying exercise togetherHelping a client renegotiate a relationship with exercise is also an important aspect of treatment, especially for an individual who abused exercise as part of the eating disorder. When a person has reached medical and psychiatric stability, they are typically cleared to begin some form of gentle movement therapy, such as yoga, stretching, or walking.

The decision to incorporate movement therapy and gentle exercise in the recovery process should be a collective decision by the treatment team. The benefits of movement and exercise include mental and emotional health while improving cognitive function and self-esteem [3].

Supporting Foundational Treatment Elements

In addressing the complexities of eating disorders, there are many factors that should be incorporated for comprehensive healing.

Whether you are a treating clinician specializing in eating disorders or an individual recovering, developing an appropriate and normalized relationship with nutrition and exercise is fundamental for one’s well-being.

Building on the essential foundation of healing through proper nutrition and gentle movement can help an individual establish recovery from an eating disorder for years to come.

Sponsored by Magnolia Creek

Peacefully nestled in 36 wooded acres and located just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders treats women (18 years and older) who struggle with eating disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attachment disorders, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, and co-occurring addictive behaviors. Magnolia Creek’s phenomenal team of therapists, doctors, nurses, and dietitians is dedicated to providing the highest quality of care using current research-supported methods in a cozy, retreat-like setting. With a dual license to treat eating disorders and mental health disorders, we work collaboratively with our clients to create an individualized treatment approach for each client that not only nourishes the body but also strengthens the spirit.

LindasmithAbout the Author: Linda Smith is the Chief Executive Officer of Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for Eating Disorders in Columbiana, Alabama. Prior to joining Magnolia Creek, Linda served as an Electronic Interchange Consultant for Comprehensive Radiology Groups throughout the state.

She also worked with one of the leading facilities in addiction, Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services located in Hattiesburg, MS. She has extensive experience in inpatient, outpatient, residential and partial hospitalization treatment, and is well versed in eating disorders, co-occurring mental health disorders, substance abuse, and love and sex addiction.


[1]: Klump KL, Bulik C, Kaye W, Treasure J, Tyson E. Academy for Eating Disorders position paper: Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. Int J Eat Dis. 2009;42:97-103.
[2]: American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrition intervention in the treatment of eating disorders. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011;111:1236-1241
[3]: Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer 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 on May 6, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 3, 2017.
Published on