The Necessity of Nutrition in Eating Disorder Treatment

Contributed Article by Courtney Kent, BA, Marketing and Outreach Director, New Dawn Treatment Centers

As summer quickly approaches, the social pressure to become beach ready is in high gear with the promotions of weight loss programs, diet fads, and gym memberships. However for some, the desire to shed a few vanity pounds can lead down a slippery slope that is not mentioned as a side-effect for any weight loss commercial: The health consequences of eating disorders.

This is not to suggest that every person trying to lose a few pounds is at risk for an eating disorder, but for those 35 percent of normal dieters that progress to pathological dieting and teeter on the edge of developing an eating disorder, the control over how much or how little food is consumed in the body can actually give all of the power to the food and cause life-threatening consequences (Shisslak & Crago). Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disease because it incorporates both the mental and physical health of the body; both of which are compromised further due to the body’s lack of nutrients.

The psychological consequences relating to starvation includes depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, loss of libido, as well as compulsive thoughts about food and/ or stress that may be either a result or precursor to the onset of the eating disorder. As these feelings intensify, a person is going to create momentary solutions to rid themselves of the heavy negative feelings by participating in eating disorder behaviors, self-harm, substance abuse, or suicide. The suicide mortality rate among both people suffering from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is estimated to be 23 times greater than that of the general population (Barraclough and Harris).

Eating disorders can also cause a multitude of serious medical issues ranging from fatigue and illness to amenorrhea, electrolyte imbalance, osteoporosis and death from heart failure. (Health Consequences). Many of these medical complications should be addressed nutritionally by a registered dietitian, RD, just as a clinician would oversee the mental health aspect of recovery.

There are many individuals with a great understanding of the caloric count in a piece of food, but to restore and support healthy weight it is essential that a nutritional education and nutritional therapy be integrated. Registered dietitians have found that food histories may actually be more practical than current food intake or laboratory tests for nutrient deficiencies. Identifying and correcting the deficiencies will improve general health, physical recovery, positive mood enhancement and restful sleep (Yorgason). RDs trained in eating disorders will understand the complexities of co-morbid illness, medical and psychological complications, and boundary issues associated with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder to work alongside therapists and clinicians. In the beginning, RDs can provide more structure with meal planning as many entering treatment may have no idea what a normal meal looks like.

Eventually, the registered dietitian and clinical staff may work towards intuitive eating by empowering the individual to create new belief systems so that joy can be found again in nourishing the body. Nutritional therapy differs from psychotherapy in that it is focused on food, body image, weight, as well as the physical activities and thought patterns that prohibit you from living the healthy balanced life you deserve (What is Nutrition). Re-learning the internal cues for hunger, contentment and fullness can be difficult for someone who has programmed themselves to ignore their hunger pains through dieting and restricting, or emotionally over-eats past the point of being comfortable (Yorgason).

The consequences of eating disorders affect both an individual’s emotional and physical health. Therefore, in order to preserve and enhance the quality of life it is essential that nutrition play an instrumental role on the path to recovery. Remember, the earlier eating disorder treatment is sought out, the better odds are for full recovery.

New Dawn’s mission is to provide tools for positive and lasting change in a safe and compassionate setting where physical, spiritual, and emotional healing can be cultivated. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to be free from his or her eating disorder to create a life of recovery, joy and empowerment.

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Published Date: May 10, 2012
Last Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 14, 2012
Published on, Eating Disorder Guide & Articles