Structuring Your Eating Disorder Recovery Environment

 

Structuring Your Eating Disorder Recovery Environment [Image description: hand visible writing in planner]Recovery is challenging! I am repeatedly moved and impressed by the courage of my patients as they work through recovery from an eating disorder. One strategy that can help support recovery is a careful ​structuring of one’s recovery environment. This applies to adults working individually in treatment as well as to families helping adolescents to recover.

Most evidence-based treatments including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) suggest that patients consider the timing of the start of treatment and potentially postpone it if they anticipate major distractions that will impede recovery. Similarly, it can be helpful when possible to try to minimize challenges.

Recovery looks different for everyone. Some patients are ambivalent about treatment and the changes it will require. Others are eager to be recovered from their eating disorder and just want to get on with life. And many may feel the urge to rush recovery. But I encourage you to “take it slow.”

Recovery 101

As a behaviorist, I like to think of recovery as a set of skills that are learned, developed, and practiced in increasingly challenging environments. Whether you are transitioning to an outpatient level of care or beginning treatment as an outpatient or supporting a teen in recovery at home, those first few months should be treated like “Recovery 101.” This is a training phase in which you are first learning and trying out recovery skills. Your abilities will become more fine-tuned as you practice increasingly difficult skills.

In this phase, it is best to be in a highly structured environment without too many complexities. Most people do best with structure. This is why settings housing large numbers of people tend to be highly structured. (I know – I worked in LA County Jail for 10 years.) This is also why higher levels of care with the sickest patients are highly structured. Structure makes things predictable and reduces anxiety.

In a structured setting, it is easier to follow a routine, such as eating at a regular time, having a familiar meal, and facing fewer distractions. Chaotic and unstructured environments are unpredictable, are more challenging for recovery, and require more advanced and flexible recovery skills.

The Challenge of Environment

In Recovery 101, it is often easiest to start by keeping things simple and predictable. Each element that adds complexity or uncertainty to the environment presents an additional challenge to someone with an eating disorder. Novel situations, different foods, different food venues, and different companions can all bring anxiety to those in early recovery. Any deviation from a routine requires additional skills, so handling each of these should be viewed as a new skill to master.

We can think about this as a ladder with each rung adding new difficulty. At the bottom is generally eating meals at home with support from immediate family. The next rungs might include:

  • Having friends or relatives over for dinner
  • Eating at a close friend’s house
  • Eating at a restaurant where individual entrees are served
  • Eating at a family-style restaurant
  • Eating at a buffet.

Each higher rung on the ladder requires more decisions and thus more skill. Each skill must be practiced.

Take it Slow

Many patients are tempted to climb the ladder quickly, rushing towards the more complicated and challenging situations. This is not advisable when someone is in Recovery 101. Some challenges are better left until recovery skills are stronger, if at all possible. It is easiest to learn skills first in one place and then to practice them in different settings. It is in this way that skills will generalize.

More advanced challenges that may best wait until the basic skills are mastered will vary from individual to individual, but these can include situations such as:

  • Weekend schedules when you have slept late (do you count brunch as breakfast or lunch and how do you handle the rest of the meals when your first meal is 3 hours late?)
  • Cooking for oneself
  • Going to unfamiliar restaurants
  • Eating at a small-plates, buffet, or family-style restaurant
  • Foreign travel to countries where the foods may be entirely unfamiliar

Instead of taking on advanced challenges all at once, consider potential ways to structure the environment during early eating disorder recovery:

  • Having meals planned out for the entire week
  • Eating meals at regular times
  • Regular grocery shopping
  • Having a backup plan (in case you run late or a plan changes)
  • Always carrying snacks (and backup snacks)
  • Planning alternative activities for high-risk times (for many patients that is evenings spent at home. For one patient, that meant going out on evenings her husband would not be home for dinner.)
  • Limiting meals at unfamiliar restaurants
  • Only bringing into the home small quantities of foods on which you have binged
  • Having a support person you can call
  • Structured schedules for every day of the week, including weekends
  • Careful planning ahead (with your team if you have one) for any situation you have not yet practiced

Keep in mind that you may experience setbacks. Sometimes you have to go back down the ladder before going back up again. This is a normal part of recovery.

When recovery is further along, you will be better able to handle more complex and challenging situations. Flexibility will come, but for now, keep it simple.

 

College, COVID, and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know

College, COVID, and Eating Disorders [Image description: woman with mask in front of computer]
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

As I’ve talked about in depth here, the transition to college away from home is challenging for most young adults. It is especially fraught for young adults with eating disorders. In that article I provided a College Readiness Checklist for students who are either considering their first move away from home after a history of an eating disorder or returning to college after being diagnosed with an eating disorder. I have learned the hard way. I’ve witnessed the heartbreaking reality of what can happen to students who go away before they’re ready. I may seem stringent, but we’re talking about one of the most deadly mental illnesses and this is your child’s life and future.

I was recently asked whether the same standards should apply in the current climate. I replied that I thought the standards should actually be more stringent given the pandemic. This has been on my mind all summer; now, I am prepared to sound the alarm.

Students with eating disorders of all types—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)—often have a narrow range of foods they are comfortable eating. They often struggle with flexibility.

The pandemic has thrown a wrench—really, a whole toolbox—into the college experience. Among the changes this fall is that most dining halls have pivoted to prepackaged meals. This will be an added challenge for students with eating disorders. Students have already reported that the results are long lines as they wait for food, far fewer food choices, no option to portion their meals themselves, and no option to mix and match. These prepackaged meals may be insufficient in nutrients or energy, especially for students in recovery who have high energy needs.

Add to this the experience of students who are quarantining either due to outbreak or exposure, or as required by the college upon return to campus as a preventative measure.  Most are in dorm rooms without access to a kitchen. Social media has exploded with unfortunate food stories:

These stories are garnering attention, people find it laughable, and the colleges are receiving criticism, but I can only think about how the students with eating disorders are impacted.

Eating disorder recovery requires eating at regular intervals and meals sufficient to maintain recovery. Even a small negative energy balance can increase the risk for relapse in individuals with anorexia nervosa or increase the risk of binge eating for those with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.

Students who are not very stable in their recovery may not be able to handle the current climate. They may not be able to seek additional food if portions are too small. People early in recovery often experience shame about hunger. It could be very triggering to receive portions that are not satisfying. Patients with eating disorders may not be able to advocate for their nutritional needs or do the problem-solving required to make sure the meals are sufficient. Finally, receiving an entire day’s worth of meals at the end of the day would be a natural trigger for those who have struggled with binge eating—or for most people!

Add to this the stress of academics and social issues and the uncertainty about the rest of the semester, and you have a perfect storm for relapse.

If you have any doubts about whether your student may be ready for college under these challenging circumstances, I strongly encourage you to consider keeping them home this semester. If there ever was a time to err on the side of caution, it is now.

With most classes online and social options at college significantly limited, this provides a unique opportunity to keep them home so they have more recovery time under their belt before they have to face such eating challenges. They will not be missing much, and you can work on strengthening recovery so that when the pandemic is over they can return as a healthier student capable of embracing the full college experience. You can use my article—which outlines steps to prepare a student for the challenges of navigating recovery in college— to make sure they are fully prepared when the time is right.

Adjunctive Therapies to FBT: What are the Additional Therapies That May be Added to FBT? And When Should They Be Added?

Image Description: Paper in window that reads "Mindfulness" Adjunctive therapies that go alongside FBT for Eating Disorders
Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

In a previous post, I have discussed who is typically on an FBT team. In its traditional manualized form, the core team is a therapist, a medical doctor, and the parents. The team often also includes a registered dietitian nutritionist (to guide the parents) and may include a psychiatrist.

It is not uncommon for medical providers unfamiliar with FBT and treatment centers to encourage additional individual therapy for the patient. As I have said previously, this is not always advisable. In FBT, less can be more—the work of the parents may be undermined by an individual therapist who either does not believe in or does not support FBT.

So, I thought it would be useful to describe in greater detail the situations in which I think additional therapies are warranted and which therapies are most aligned with FBT.

FBT is primarily a behavioral treatment, administered by parents. The two therapies I discuss below—Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention—are also behavioral treatments that can be applied consistently alongside FBT without confusion. By contrast, non-behaviorally-based therapies may create splitting or confusion when offered alongside FBT. In particular, you should be cautious about and avoid therapies that do not reinforce the parents’ authority over eating or introduce different theories about the cause of an eating disorder.

Comprehensive Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT) developed in the 1980s by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. It was developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and is now considered the most effective treatment for this population. Research has demonstrated its effectiveness for a range of other mental disorders including substance dependence, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.

DBT stands out as the treatment of choice for people with difficulty regulating emotions—those prone to outbursts of anger and impulsive behaviors such as self-harm and purging. It focuses on the teaching of skills to tolerate emotions and improve relationships.

Be aware that there are many therapists (including us!) who use DBT skills in individual therapy with clients. Some therapists also may offer a standalone DBT skills training group. However, while these individual elements of DBT treatment may be beneficial, comprehensive DBT has a powerful advantage.

For DBT to by comprehensive it must comprise the following components:

  • DBT skills training. This almost always occurs in a group format run like a class. Group leaders teach behavioral skills and assign homework. Groups meet weekly for 24 weeks to complete the curriculum. Skills training consists of four modules: Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Emotion Regulation.
  • Individual therapy. Weekly sessions run concurrently with the skills training. The individual therapist helps clients apply the DBT skills.
  • Phone coaching. Clients are encouraged to reach out to their individual therapists to receive in-the-moment support applying skills during times of need.
  • DBT Consultation Team to Support the Therapist. All the members of the DBT team (group therapists and individual therapists) support each other in managing these clients who are in high distress.

When a teen is in comprehensive DBT, there is usually a parallel track for the parents that includes a parent skills group and a parent phone coach so that the parents receive help supporting their teen who is learning to apply DBT skills.

Exposure and Response Prevention

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) refers to specific CBT strategies used to address obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or similar symptoms. OCD is characterized by distressing and intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors in which a person engages to try to reduce the distress. In ERP, the patient is exposed to the distressing situation and encouraged to prevent their compulsive behavior so they can learn to tolerate the distress. Once a person feels capable of handling their distress they will no longer need to engage in the compulsive behavior.

OCD and eating disorders commonly co-occur, and eating disorders can result in compulsive behaviors that require additional attention, such as compulsive exercise or other rituals not related to eating. Patients with eating disorders who engage in these behaviors may benefit from the addition of ERP.

Instagram to make Diet Ads viewable for ages 18 and over—Why They should Remove Them Altogether

by Carolyn Hersh, LCSW

Instagram to make Diet Ads viewable for ages 18 and over—Why They should Remove Them Altogether [image description: iPhone on a table with instagram logo on screen]
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
On September 18th, 2019 Instagram instituted an official policy that all ads promoting diet and weight loss products would only be able to be viewed by users 18 and over. Any ads that have false claims can be reported and subject to removal. This is a huge victory in the world of challenging diet culture. For years, celebrities and social media influencers have been advertising diet and weight loss products that, for the most part, are bogus, promise false results and can be just downright dangerous to someone’s physical and mental health.

Most celebrities who promote these products are doing so for a paycheck and not because they are actually finding these products useful. Unfortunately, advertisements like these can impact impressionable viewers, especially those struggling with poor body image, disordered eating and eating disorders. And while the celebrities may say, “Take this and look like me,” the reality is that these products have no true evidence that they can change anyone.

Emma Collins, Instagram’s public policy manager, made a statement after this policy went into effect, “We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media.” While this is a great step forward, it does feel like the next step should be eliminating diet and weight loss products altogether.

There are some major problems with advertising weight loss products. As a Health at Every Size® activist and promoter of body positivity, I can tell you that these products merely reinforce the idea that your body isn’t good enough. They teach that there is only one ideal body, and usually, it is the body of the celebrity promoting the product. It can be really dangerous to tell people that tea will flatten their stomachs or a lollipop will give them curves in the “right” places.

These advertisements put people at risk for developing eating disorders. They promote the very behaviors that are symptoms of eating disorders. These products try to normalize appetite suppression or compensating for what one has eaten via a laxative pill or tea. The messages are not health-promoting. They reinforce diet culture beliefs of certain foods being bad and needing to atone for eating.

A major issue is that there is absolutely no evidence that the products being advertised actually help with weight loss, detoxing your body of toxins, or changing the shape of your body. Most of these products are not even approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is charged with regulating medications and while there are a few that have been approved, most that are advertised on social media are not. Most of these products carry false claims and use ingredients that can be more harmful than helpful. And that is a huge problem.

We do not often see celebrities sharing disclaimers of potential side effects from using these products. Diet pills may increase heart rate, heart palpitations, the likelihood of a stroke, and even death. The detox teas carry the risk of dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and stripping our guts of the nutrients we need. Side effects can also include an increase in stomach cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Our bodies were designed to naturally flush out toxins. It is why we have a liver. And for those users of the products looking for a way to lose weight, well the weight “lost” from these teas are usually just water or stool mass. These products place a huge toll on the body and put vital organs at risk.

For these reasons, we should not only be protecting social media users who are under 18. We should be protecting everyone from viewing these ads. Adults are probably more likely to purchase these products and adults are just as susceptible to false promises as adolescents. It is great that places like Instagram are giving us a choice if we want to view these ads. It is definitely a step in the right direction. But, there is nothing safe about these products. From taking a physical toll on our bodies to mentally placing shame on our bodies there is no room for diet pills, detox teas, or any other weight loss product.

If you are currently struggling with how you feel about your body, help is available through support groups, therapy, and even body-positive accounts and groups on social media. The wonderful thing about social media is that there is a community for promoting Health at Every Size® and working on self-love and acceptance. Most of these groups do not cost anything and can have to have positive effects on your mind and body.

Parents, Don’t Let Your Kids Download Kurbo!

Parents, don't let kids download Kurbo app [image description: traffic light with all lights on]A disclaimer: I have no vested interest in Weight Watchers’ new Kurbo app. This app will in fact create more work for me. But let me be clear: I do not want this kind of work!

I know that you mean well and are merely concerned about your child’s health, but I can assure you that Weight Watchers does not share your concern. They are a commercial enterprise interested in making money and their business model is based on preying upon insecurities.

You would only need to spend a short time in my waiting room to hear from other parents who were once like you—moderately concerned (or maybe unconcerned) about their child’s weight and happy when their child committed to “eating healthier.” The story is nearly always the same. This child has been in what I would call a larger body—you might have called them “overweight”, pediatricians might have labeled them “obese”. It starts with them giving up sweets and then progresses. They start to restrict meat and starches and exercise more. It looks healthy. Over time, some switch gets tripped, and with very little warning the kid has anorexia, a lethal mental illness.

While most cases of anorexia are triggered by dieting, unintentional weight loss can be a trigger as well. It appears that people predisposed to anorexia respond to a negative energy balance in a way that flips this switch and they cross a dieting point of no return. Many of the teens I work with have been hospitalized for life-threatening low heart rates and electrolyte imbalances.

I cannot adequately express the guilt that parents feel from having allowed their teens to start these diets. I don’t blame them. I understand the pressure they are under.

Two of my three children grew out before they grew up. They had gained the weight their bodies needed to fuel puberty and impending growth spurts. I too received the warning from my well-intentioned pediatrician about their weights and weight gain. I knew enough to ignore the implied suggestion of helping them trim down. I cringe to think what might have happened if I had followed it. My children grew just fine and became more proportional according to their genetic predisposition.

My other child was lauded by the same pediatrician for growing up before growing out. It was only years later when I plotted her growth that I realized she had totally fallen off her expected weight curve at the time the pediatrician praised her weight. Yet, I did notice that she didn’t seem to be eating enough. (For more information on the intervention I did with her, read this post.)

The Kurbo app should come with the following warning:

“This app may trigger an eating disorder
from which your child could take 22 years to recover.”

Yes, 22 years! The most rigorous longitudinal study we have of anorexia has shown that at 9 years, only 31% of individuals with anorexia nervosa had recovered. Almost 63% had recovered at 22 years. If this is the path you follow, you may be facing many long years in and out of costly treatments to help your child recover.

Incidentally, Kurbo has made my job tougher. It classifies foods as “green”, “yellow”, or “red”. “Red” foods, such as ice cream, fried chicken, and pizza are “bad” — Kurbo advises kids to avoid them.

I work with children who suffer from anorexia, may be hypermetabolic, and may require ingesting upwards of 6000 kcal per day for several years to recover. I can’t express the difficulty of convincing an anorexic child to eat highly caloric foods to recover, when they immediately parrot back all the health messages they’ve received about these foods being dangerous. It’s terribly confusing to be told that the foods they’ve learned are bad for them are in fact the medicine that will cure them. This is but one reason why we cannot take a one size fits all approach to foods.

Back in my waiting room, maybe you would hear from some of the adults with eating disorders. They might tell you that years of dieting have contributed to weight gain, weight cycling, binge eating, and misery. They will typically remember that this pattern started in childhood with a diet. Dieting disconnects people from their own internal regulatory system (as does tracking calories and exercise).

What Can Parents Do Instead?  The following advice is for parents of kids of all sizes.

I suggest teaching kids that bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes and that body size is largely genetically determined. I recommend viewing the Poodle Science video from ASDAH. This video does a great job illustrating body diversity and the risks of subjecting everyone to a single body standard. I suggest teaching kids that fat bodies are great too. We have to make it safe for people to be fat in order to prevent and treat eating disorders. Eating disorders are a more lethal problem. Parents can avoid judging or criticizing their own or other peoples’ bodies.

I suggest giving kids access to a range of foods — prohibiting “fun” foods leads kids to overvalue and overeat them. We don’t need to label foods as good or bad. Parents can serve nutritious food as well as fun food and model that they are of equal moral value. They can also model that food is supposed to be pleasurable and offers the opportunity for social and cultural connections.

Parents can also help children to move in ways that are fun, rather than teaching that exercise is penance for eating.

For more specific advice on helping kids develop as strong intuitive eaters with healthy body images, I suggest the work of dietitian Ellyn Satter and my psychotherapist colleagues, Zoe Bisbing and Leslie Bloch, The Full Bloom Project.

To Learn More

I recommend reading the statement from the National Eating Disorders Association: NEDA Statement on Kurbo by WW App.

And also The New York Times Op-Ed by dietitian, Christy Harrison: Our Kids Do Not Need A Weight Watchers App.

 

Getting Your Teen with an Eating Disorder Ready for the First Day Back at School

Getting Your Teen with an Eating Disorder Ready for the First Day Back at School [image description: drawing of two children walking in front of a school desk and chalkboard]
Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay
It’s almost the first day of school and parents of students with eating disorders have additional concerns to address on top of the usual back to school frenzy. Transitions can be tough for all teens—they are especially difficult for those with eating disorders. However, there are some preparations you can make to help things go more smoothly.

If you have been supervising most meals your teen has been eating over the summer, the shift to a school day brings a significant change in schedule. A considerable portion of your teen’s day will be spent at school. You may need to increase the size of the breakfast your teen will consume before a long day away from home. Practice the breakfasts you will plan to prepare during the school year. Also be mindful that there may be less time for breakfast when you have to get your teen out the door—to ease the transition, have them practice eating within a reasonable time.

During the school day, your teen will typically need lunch and at least one snack. Now is the time to consider how you will handle these meals and snacks. If your teen is early in recovery it may be important to for them to remain under the full supervision of parents for all meals and snacks. If this is the case, you should speak to the school staff now and make arrangements. Most schools will allow a parent to come and have the teen come out and eat lunch in the car and then go back in. Other parents make arrangements for a staff person at the school (favorite teacher, school nurse) to supervise lunch. You may need to do the same thing with a morning snack. You may even consider only sending your teen for part of the school day until meals are going more smoothly.

If your teen is able to eat a meal and or snack on their own, don’t assume that doing so at school will be easy. Any change in location or schedule can increase the challenge for a teen with an eating disorder. I always suggest letting your teen know that if they can’t finish what you’ve packed, they should pack it up and bring the remainder home. It is important for you to know what they couldn’t finish so that you can add food later to make sure they don’t end up with a deficient intake which could lead to relapse. Let them know they won’t be in trouble!

Practice now with the foods you will send to school for lunch. If your teen is accustomed to hot lunches at home, have them practice eating the very foods you will pack in a school lunch to make sure they are comfortable eating those foods. I always suggest packing foods that are easiest for your teen to eat while being adequate nutritionally; save the fear foods for the meals they will be eating at home with you.

If your teen will be eating without supervision, discuss with whom they will eat. Do they have friends they feel most comfortable with? Even better if they have a friend who knows about their eating disorder and they can talk to ahead of time about making plans to eat lunch together. Encourage them to eat with friends who are good eaters.

If your teen will need to have restrictions from physical education, get a note from your treatment team and deliver it to their school.

Finally, I suggest watching closely during times of transition. This means weighing your teen regularly to guard against a significant weight change. Sometimes you can hit a bump and catching a problem early can go a long way in preventing a serious decline.

For more tips on handling your teen’s meals at school, check out Dr. Muhlheim’s book, When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder.

Cutting Down on Food and Fitness Tracking

Cutting Down on Food and Fitness Tracking [image description: person adjusting a smartwatch on their wrist]
Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash
Have you been tracking your food via a calorie-counting app?

Maybe you’ve been tracking your exercise through a wearable or other system. Did you know such tracking:

  • May encourage a disordered relationship with food and your body?
  • May actually be jeopardizing your health rather than helping you to monitor it?

If you’ve noticed that you’re becoming obsessive about what you eat or how you move your body, it might be a good idea to examine your relationship with any tracking devices you are using.

People may track their weights, food consumed, and workouts in the name of health. But for many people, tracking such data can actually be detrimental. Preliminary research shows that the use of MyFitnessPal can contribute to eating disorder symptoms in undergraduates (Simpson & Mazzeo, 2017), adults with eating disorders (Levinson et al., 2017) and men (Linardon and Messer, 2019).

The research is not clear about exactly why these devices can be so detrimental. In my experience working with patients with eating disorders who track, tracking cuts people off from their bodies and their own regulatory systems. People who track become reliant on objective measures and data for making decisions about how much to eat and how hard to exercise. They lose awareness of their own bodies’ signals. Perfectionistic traits may drive them to eat fewer calories, take more steps, and increase their distance or pace during a workout. Even those who don’t struggle with a diagnosable eating disorder can be negatively impacted by these tracking devices and apps, with individuals who previously had a perfectly normal relationship with food suddenly feeling completely consumed with thoughts about what they’re putting into their mouths.

This was brought home to me when working with a patient who was obsessively tracking his workout metrics. As we discussed doing a bike ride without his fitness monitor–just as an experiment to see how it felt—he argued passionately with me, with one telling objection being, “How will I know when to take a drink?” He had been timing his consumption of water according to time and distance.

I asked him the same question back:  “How will you know when to take a drink?” Hearing it from a third party, he realized how strange the question sounded and how disconnected he had become from his own body.

Similarly, patients who count calories and carefully dole out lunches of specific caloric allotments become frightened when faced with a lunch of unknown (and likely higher) caloric value. Knowing that restaurant portions are larger and more calorically dense then the meals they make at home, they ask me how they can possibly avoid overeating. And then they are amazed when they find that they are sometimes satisfied with less than the entire portion of the restaurant meal, precisely because it’s more calorically dense and satiating.

Once they are no longer eating according to self-imposed strictures, eating becomes a different experience. They gain the capacity to tune in to how they feel while eating the food, rather than just eating to completion of their allotment–and they find that their bodies tell them when to stop eating. Life without tracking can become a freeing and enjoyable experience in which you can be fully present during meals and exercise and engage with the people around you and your surroundings—having deep conversations without intrusive thoughts and becoming mesmerized by beautiful surroundings when you exercise outdoors, for example.

Our bodies are wonderful, self-regulating mechanisms. Our bodies tell us when we need to urinate or have a drink of water or when it’s time to eat and when it’s time to stop eating. When we succumb to diet or wellness culture and stop trusting our bodies and start relying on external systems to tell us when to drink or how much to eat, we become disconnected from our bodies and we lose the ability to recognize these signals.

How to Stop Tracking

If you find that you are obsessively tracking your food or workouts, I invite you to try the following experiment:

  • Fitness tracking: do one workout without your monitor. During and after your workout, rather than looking at your metrics to evaluate the workout, ask yourself instead how your body feels/felt during the movement and afterward.
  • Food tracking: eat a meal where you do not know the caloric content. Tune in to how you feel while eating it. How does it taste?

Sources

Levinson, C. A., Fewell, L., & Brosof, L. C. (2017). My Fitness Pal calorie tracker usage in the eating disorders. Eating Behaviors, 27, 14-16.

Linardon, J., & Messer, M. (2019). My fitness pal usage in men: Associations with eating disorder symptoms and psychosocial impairment. Eating Behaviors, 33, 13–17.

Simpson, C. C., & Mazzeo, S. E. (2017). Calorie counting and fitness tracking technology: Associations with eating disorder symptomatology. Eating Behaviors, 26, 89-92.

 

Do I Need to Quit X to Stay in Recovery?

Do I Need to Quit X to Stay in Recovery? [image description: stencil graffiti of a child letting go of a heart shaped balloon]
Image by Zorro4 from Pixabay

By Carolyn Hersh, LCSW, Staff Therapist

A difficult concept in recovery is knowing when to let go of an activity or even a job that could potentially re-ignite the eating disorder. As a therapist I find myself guiding my clients towards the realization that the sport or career path they had loved so much might be the very thing that holds them back and sets them back up for relapse. It isn’t always an easy decision.

Letting go of something that may have predated the eating disorder can lead to questions as to why it cannot remain in someone’s life in recovery. Many clients in the early stages of eating disorder treatment have to face the fact that they have to stop their sports if they are trying to regain weight or are working on eliminating behaviors that could leave the body physically weak. It is no surprise that once stabilization begins there is an urge to return to previously enjoyed activities. However, returning to these activities could potentially hinder full recovery.

Sports like gymnastics, running, figure skating, wrestling, and dancing are incredibly wonderful. As a figure skater myself, I can attest there is no greater feeling than gliding over the ice. But these same sports, especially at the elite level, can be incredibly demanding on the body. Behaviors required for full recovery can go against what a coach may be preaching to athletes to be in top physical form. What is expected of top athletes could look like disordered eating and poor body mentality from an outside perspective. The eating disorder itself may take what is used to condition a top athlete and manipulate it for its own gain.

It can be difficult to find the balance between a recovered mindset and meeting the demands of a sport or career. With some of my clients in the entertainment industry, there are pressures to look a certain way and fit a mold that their bodies may not be meant to fit. It can be difficult to navigate knowing they need to eat a certain amount of times a day and then have an agent say, “Lose five pounds for this role.”

The hardest decision is when there is a realization that staying in either the sport or career is just too detrimental to your health. It is certainly not easy to walk away from something you’ve put work into. And that can also be said about your recovery. Are you willing to give up a healthy body and mind for a potential chance at a gold medal or lucrative career even if it means killing yourself along the way? I’ve worked with a client who was a dancer who recognized as she was going through treatment that going back into a dance studio would be too triggering. She knew that staring at herself in a mirror and comparing herself to her classmates would lead to restricting her meals. It wasn’t an easy decision to walk away, but she knew there was no way she was in a place to be able to dance without being triggered.

In some circumstances, you may not have to completely quit your previous passion.  You might be able to approach the activity differently. You may not be able to return to a sport as an elite athlete, but you could still engage in the activity at a more recreational level. I’ve seen some of my clients shift from being an athlete to being a coach. Actors going from television and movies to doing local theater.  Sometimes you can still do what you love but it just needs to be re-configured to fit into your recovery lifestyle. For many, it can be comforting to know they can still act or model or run, but just do it less intensively.

You may also have the option of challenging what a sport or career emphasizes as far as body image and diet pressures. There are many models and actors who are embracing bigger bodies and not letting the pressures to lose weight define them. With this option, there is a risk of rejection along the way as we do still live in a culture that overvalues thinness. With that being said, this may be a safe option primarily for those who feel stable in recovery and are able to actively use coping skills to fight urges. If your recovery has reached a place of advocacy this definitely could be a path to take.

Leaving a passion behind or re-defining how it fits into your life can be a huge change. You may feel sad or mad. That’s okay. Ultimately, the decision you make will be the one that supports you in your recovery. If staying in the activity is going to trigger calorie counting, weekly weigh-ins or criticism for not looking a certain way, is it worth it? If you know where the eating disorder thrives then why play with fire? Ultimately, the decision will be based on what will make you healthy and happy and not allow you to compromise with the eating disorder.

Seven Reasons You Should Eat When You’re Not Hungry

challenging diet rules [image description: three women sitting outside eating ice cream cones]
Representation Matters
One of the cardinal rules of dieting is “Eat only when you’re hungry.” I often find that the fear of eating when not hungry is one of the most difficult bits of dogma to overcome. People with eating disorders and good dieters everywhere have been taught that this is all that stands in the way between us and complete loss of control and utter disaster in our lives. Many don’t even see it as an actual choice or symptom of the eating disorder.

Successful recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating or chronic dieting requires overcoming and challenging this rule.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of a lot of reasons to eat when not hungry. Here are a few related to disordered eating:

  1. You have overridden your hunger cues for years from cycles of dieting, bingeing and purging. You don’t recognize normal hunger cues or satiety. Your treatment team has told you to eat regularly—three meals and two to three snacks per day. You feel like it is too much food and you’re not hungry. Should you follow their meal plan? Yes! Eating regularly is a crucial step in recovering from any eating disorder and it helps to regulate your hormones and circadian rhythms so you can regain your hunger and satiety cues and become a more intuitive eater.

 

  1. You are in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder and rarely feel hunger. You are told you need to eat more, but you don’t believe it. Isn’t it better to delay eating until later in the day? Should you really eat breakfast and lunch at the times scheduled by your dietitian? Yes, absolutely! Regular meals are critical to getting all of your body functions to work properly again. One of the reasons you may not be feeling adequate hunger could be delayed gastric emptying, which occurs when someone is undereating and food remains in the stomach far longer than it should. One of the consequences is low appetite. The solution: eat regularly as prescribed, even if you’re not hungry.

 

I can think of many more situations that apply to all of us, not just those with eating disorders:

  1. You normally eat dinner at 7 pm and your circadian rhythm is conditioned to get hungry then. But your sister has scheduled a family dinner at 5:30 to accommodate her children so they won’t be cranky at the table. Should you eat at 5:30 before you are hungry? Absolutely! Adjusting our schedules allows us to have meaningful social interactions that typically revolve around eating.

 

  1. You have a meeting that is scheduled from 12 to 3 pm. You’re not hungry at 11 am; breakfast was only at 8:30. You have the option to have a proper lunch at 11:30. Should you? Of course! Be practical—it’s better to eat before your meeting. Then you’ll be properly fueled and will be better able to concentrate during the meeting. Our brains don’t function as well when they’re low on glucose. Planning ahead and adjusting mealtimes accordingly is an important act of self-care.

 

  1. You are traveling to another country. You arrive at your destination and it’s dinnertime. Your circadian rhythms are all thrown off. You feel like you’ve been eating constantly. Should you eat? Yes! Acclimation to a new time zone is ushered along by institution of regular eating at the times appropriate to the destination. You will adjust faster if you get your body in synch.

 

  1. You just had a rough breakup. You’re eating meals, but sad. Your friends show up and want to take you out for ice cream to cheer you up. You’re not hungry. Should you go and eat ice cream with your friends? Absolutely! Food is not solely about nutrition – it’s also about bonding and comfort, and you should let the ice cream and your friends soothe your broken heart.

 

  1. You’re stressed and preparing for a presentation tomorrow. You’ve eaten adequately throughout the day and are not truly hungry. But you know that crunching on some popcorn will soothe your nerves. This is an old behavior that you’ve overused in the past. Contrary to popular belief, emotional eating is not itself a problem. Food is our earliest comfort and humans are designed to find food to be rewarding. If it were not, we would have died out as a species. There is no shame in using food as comfort—what can be problematic is if there are no other tools in your emotional toolkit. If eating is your only coping skill then I encourage you to learn some other strategies for managing negative emotions to give you a broader range of alternatives.

 

So, not eating when you’re not hungry is a rule that should be confronted. How can you start to challenge this rule and, if you have one, the eating disorder that uses it as an excuse?

You must face it head-on with new behaviors, deliberately defying it. If you have been instructed to follow a meal plan: follow it. If you have been told you are undereating: practice eating one thing per day when you are not hungry. The next time you have something in your schedule that interferes with a normal meal time: eat beforehand. Accept invitations to eat at times to which you are unaccustomed. Eat something spontaneously when it shows up, even if you are not hungry.

By practicing these behaviors, you will become less fearful of eating when not hungry. You will learn that this, too, is a normal part of being a human. You will be more relaxed around food and you will see that nothing horrible happens if you eat when you’re not hungry. You do not have to continue to be a victim of diet culture.

Nana’s Poundcake, Food, and Cultural Connection

Nana's Poundcake [image description: a round pound cake on a plate]Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships. –– Winona Laduke

Food is about more than sustenance. It is about pleasure and joy and connection. Food is one of the ways we connect with our cultural traditions and our ancestors. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about my work to help people with eating disorders. When someone has an eating disorder and they are fearful of eating or of eating certain foods, they miss out on the pleasures of food and they miss out on the opportunities to connect with others through food. They also miss out on their own connection with their relatives and their cultural heritage.

In my own family, my 103-year-old Nana has always been known for her piano playing and her delicious poundcake. While her prized Steinway piano now stands in my home, I did not inherit her piano-playing her abilities. I did, however, learn her poundcake recipe.

From the time I was a young girl, I have memories of “Nana’s poundcake.” Simple to make with only 5 ingredients, buttery and yummy. During visits to Kansas City, I looked forward to making it with her. And when she visited us in New York we would make it together. And, occasionally my mom and I would make it without Nana. My kids have had the experience of making poundcake with my Nana, their great grandmother. And they have made it with me. After she eventually passes, we will retain this connection to my Nana and my kids will hopefully continue to make and share her recipe with future generations.

 

 

 

 

 

Photos of my daughters making poundcake with Nana back in 2012 at her apartment (she was 96)

I am glad to have this connection to Nana and to be able to fully enjoy making and eating poundcake with all its rich butter and sugar. What joy and connection I would be missing out on if I were afraid of eating it. To be able to make it and eat it with enjoyment enriches my life and allows me to have a shared experience through four generations of my family. I will always have joyful memories of baking and eating poundcake with the different generations in my family.

Bonus Feature — Nana’s Poundcake Recipe

  • 1/2 pound salted butter (2 sticks) – softened
  • 1 3/4 cup sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 2 cups sifted flour
  • 2 T vanilla

 

  • Cream butter and sugar
  • Add eggs one at a time while beating constantly
  • Add flour and flavoring
  • Pour into well-greased loaf pan (or bundt pan)
  • Bake at 350° for 90 minutes

Photos from a poundcake I made with my daughter in 2019.