Can Studying Nutrition Benefit Eating Disorder Recovery?

Whether you are studying nutrition or not, it is important for everyone to realize that there are no “good” or “bad” foods. Virtually every food can be eaten in moderation. Achieving a healthy diet and a well-balanced way of eating is not possible if one thinks in those black and white terms. Thinking in such terms can lead to disordered eating, or even a diagnosis of an eating disorder.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) uses the term “disordered eating” to describe a variety of irregular eating behaviors, some of which may or may not fulfill the diagnosis of a specific “eating disorder.” Examples of eating disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

According to the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC), at least 30 million Americans will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States are affected by eating disorders in the United States. Every 62 minutes, a person dies as a result of an eating disorder. Diagnosis of an eating disorder is common among adolescents and teenagers, and, if untreated, such a disorder can last for an entire lifetime.

Eating disorders are treatable. Only a third of those diagnosed with an eating disorder ever receive treatment, however. Among adolescents with eating disorders, only one in five receive treatment. Part of the problem is that most health insurance plans do not adequately cover treatment for eating disorders.

Whatever type of eating disorder or disordered eating a person suffers from, the study of nutrition can be a form of self-empowerment, and a benefit to their recovery. Beginning nutrition studies must be done carefully and in the right way, as focusing on certain aspects of nutrition, or constantly thinking about food, can have a detrimental effect to recovery from eating disorders/disordered eating. While studying nutrition can be beneficial to those in eating disorder recovery, it should, by no means, be the primary form of treatment that one should pursue if one is suffering from disordered eating or an eating disorder.

Research done by the American Dietetic Association indicates that college students majoring in nutrition and dietetics tend to have more food-related problems, such as disordered eating and eating disorders, than students majoring in other fields. But over time, nutrition studies can benefit college students who have eating disorders. The more knowledge an undergraduate has about nutrition and dietetics, the lower the incidence of negative behaviors regarding eating. Junior and senior nutrition and dietetics majors, for example, have fewer negative eating-related behaviors than freshmen and sophomores majoring in nutrition and dietetics.

Commonly Diagnosed Types of Eating Disorders

Before we discuss how studying nutrition can benefit those recovering from eating disorders or disordered eating, it is important to identify the most prevalent types of eating disorders. Per the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the following are the most common eating disorders or forms of disordered eating:

  • Anorexia Nervosa– This is characterized by weight loss and difficulty maintaining an appropriate body weight for age, height and stature, as well as a disturbed body image
  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) – This is characterized by limiting the amount and/or types of food consumed. It usually does not involve distress about body shape or size.
  • Bulimia Nervosa– This is characterized by a cycle of binge eating and using unhealthy compensatory measures to counter the binge eating (such as purging).
  • Binge Eating Disorder – This is the most common eating disorder in the United States and is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, feeling of losing control during the binge, experiencing shame or guilt afterwards, and not regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (such as purging) to counter the binge eating.
  • Compulsive Exercise – This is characterized by extreme, excessive exercise that significantly interferes with a person’s life.
  • Laxative Abuse – This is the repeated, frequent use of laxatives to eliminate unwanted calories, lose weight, and/or feel “thin.”
  • Orthorexia– While not yet a formally diagnosed disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), this is an obsession with healthful eating. It may be a danger to anyone studying nutrition and dietetics who might have any of the risk factors for eating disorders listed below.
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED) – Also known as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS), this describes individuals who do not meet criteria for anorexia or bulimia but still have a significant eating disorder.
  • Pica – This is characterized by eating items that are not thought of as food and do not have significant nutritional value.
  • Rumination Disorder – This involves the regular regurgitation of food (re-chewing, re-swallowing, or spitting out) occurring for at least one month.
  • Unspecified Feeding or Eating Disorder (UFED) -This applies to cases in which symptoms do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for any of the feeding or eating disorders but still cause clinically significant distress or impairment.

What Are the Underlying Causes of Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders and disordered eating are very complex conditions that can be caused by a variety of interacting social, behavioral, emotional, biological, psychological, and interpersonal factors. There is no one “cause” of eating disorders, but, taken together, the following factors can put someone at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder (according to the National Eating Disorders Association):

Psychological Risk Factors

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Perfectionism
  • Body image dissatisfaction
  • Addiction
  • Rigid, black and white thinking
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Emotional regulation difficulties

Biological Risk Factors

  • Presence of Type 1 Diabetes
  • Presence of food allergies, contributing to restrictive eating
  • Personal history of addiction, depression or anxiety
  • Family history of depression, anxiety, addiction
  • Having a close family member with an eating disorder
  • History of dieting
  • History of negative energy balance (exercising more to burn off more calories than you take in)

Social Risk Factors

  • Weight stigma
  • Being teased or bullied
  • Internalizing the “ideal body”
  • Limited social networks leading to loneliness and isolation
  • People in racial and ethnic minority groups
  • Historical trauma

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Featured Nutritionist Programs

Common Obstacles to Recovery from an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders and disordered eating can be incredibly difficult to treat and very resistant to recovery. Recovery from eating disorders and disordered eating can be a long process with many setbacks. According to one study, after 10 years of treatment, just one-third of women with anorexia nervosa had recovered, but after 22 years of treatment, 62.8 percent of them had recovered. So, while it might take some time, recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

The most common obstacles that those who are attempting to recover from an eating disorder or disordered eating face include:

  • Affording it. Many insurance policies do not cover, or fully cover, treatment of eating disorders, or might make the patient meet many restrictive conditions. Typically, these include:
    • Patient’s weight isn’t low enough to qualify for insurance to pay for treatment
    • Patient has not tried a lower level of care (i.e., outpatient therapy) before seeking a higher level of care (i.e., inpatient treatment)
    • Patient’s condition is chronic and past treatments have been ineffective
    • Patient shows a lack of progress in treatment (not gaining weight, no motivation, inconsistent attendance)
    • Patient displays an absence of negative behaviors (or doesn’t show enough to qualify for treatment)
    • No medical complications exist
  • Learning to cope with negative emotions without using food or the control of food
  • Developing a balanced relationship with food – including:
    • Letting go of rigid eating rules
    • Not dieting
    • Sticking to a regular eating schedule
    • Listen to your body’s hunger and fullness signals
  • Learning to accept and love yourself as-is:
    • Improving your body image
    • Avoiding negative self-talk
    • Avoiding fat talk
    • Not comparing yourself to others
  • Developing a solid support system of people who love you and want to see you happy and healthy
  • Identifying and avoiding (when you can) triggers, such as:
    • Holidays
    • Final exam week
    • Stress in work or relationships
  • Avoiding websites that promote anorexia and bulimia
  • Sticking with a treatment plan
  • Filling your time with positive activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, like:
    • Volunteering
    • Developing a new skill
    • Starting a fun new hobby

How Food Science Education Can Support Recovery

When done properly, the study of food science and nutrition can support those who are in recovery from eating disorders.Once they learn what is in the foods that you are putting you’re your body, and how their nutrients help various bodily systems to function correctly, many students of nutrition and dietetics find themselves making healthier choices when feeding themselves and their families.

There are many avenues that one can take when embarking upon the study of food science. Some choose to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, which is achievable, for now, by earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school (although that requirement will change to a master’s degree by 2024), Others opt to become a Dietetic Technician, Registered, requiring just two years of study and an associate degree. Some may opt to complete an online certification program to become a non-licensed nutritionist or health coach. There is a variety of ways that one can begin studies in food science, depending upon their personal circumstances and career goals.

How can educating oneself about food science benefit eating disorder recovery?

  • Those studying nutrition and dietetics learn what is “normal”:
    • The importance of regular meals and snacks.
    • The significance of adequate nutrient intake.
    • A neutralized view of foods (no good or bad foods).
    • The need for variety in foods.
    • Moderation in foods and eating.
    • How to understand body cues for eating (hunger, fullness).
  • They learn how to read and interpret food labels.
  • They learn the medical consequences of disordered eating behaviors.
  • They learn that recovery from eating disorders is a process that may take time.
  • They learn the negatives of restricting food.
  • They learn the harms of dieting and the diet culture.
  • They learn mindful eating practices such as intuitive eating.

What role do professionals play in helping people recover from eating disorders? Nutritionists, eating disorder nutritionists, and registered dietitian nutritionists can help those suffering from eating disorders to see food differently. They can help them to identify and use healthy behaviors when it comes to food and eating. They also develop meal plans for their patients that are tailored to their specific situations and needs. Nutritionists and dietitians work as part of a multi-disciplinary team with other health care professionals, such as mental health professionals. Psychiatrists and therapists are important in recovery from eating disorders, as they can help the patient learn to see themselves differently and improve their body image and self-image.

Turning a Recovery Experience into a Food Science Career

For those who have experienced disordered eating or been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and are in recovery or have recovered, a career in nutrition and dietetics seems like a logical next step. As much focus is placed on the importance of good nutrition and food choices during recovery, this lends itself well to further study in the food science field. If one is planning to become an eating disorder nutritionist, even better – the personal experience that one has with their own eating disorder and recovery can greatly support those who are currently going through similar situations.

Some of the careers available in food science include (but are not limited to):

Other Ways You Can Use What You’ve Learned Through Food Science Education

An education in food science and nutrition and dietetics can have many benefits in addition to leading you into a new career. This type of education provides practical knowledge and information that you can pass onto others in your life, including family and friends. You may even become their “go-to” resource for healthy ideas and knowledge about nutrition and foods.
Additionally, being educated about food and nutrition can give you personal insights on eating disorder recovery. This can be important whether you know a friend or family member in recovery from an eating disorder, or whether you, yourself are in recovery.

Ways that you can share your knowledge of food science with others include:

  • Counseling family members and friends who question you about nutrition and food
  • Advising friends and family members who may be struggling with eating disorder or disordered eating
  • Presenting food and nutrition topics to community groups
  • Educating school kids on proper nutrition and foods to eat
  • Volunteering at a help line/help center for eating disorders