The Use of Supplemental Shakes in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Lauren Muhlheim, PsyD and Katie Grubiak, RDN

Nutritional supplements in eating disorder recovery - shakes

Restoring nutritional health is an essential part of recovery from any eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The process of nutritional rehabilitation involves eating sufficient food at regular intervals, which reestablishes regular eating patterns and allows the body to recover. In this post, we will discuss the role of supplemental nutritional shakes in eating disorder recovery. In our next post, we will taste-test the different brands and formulations of nutritional shakes on the market, share our opinions, and help you decide which to buy if you are considering using shakes in your or a loved one’s recovery.

Nutritional Rehabilitation

Since many eating disorder patients – even those who are not at low weights – can be malnourished, renourishment is an important step. Ideally it should take place under the guidance of both a medical doctor and a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who can develop a meal plan uniquely suited to the needs of the patient.

Repairing a depleted body can require a very high caloric intake. The recommended rate of weight gain is usually one to two pounds per week – for many of our clients, this translates into required dietary intakes of 3000 to 5000 calories per day. However, it can be unsafe to increase intake to this level immediately due to the risk of refeeding syndrome, a serious condition caused by introducing nutrition to a malnourished person. Calories need to be increased incrementally under a doctor’s supervision and with an RDN’s guidance.

Getting Sufficient Intake

Many people with eating disorders will be able to restore their nutrition entirely with food. And while we always think it is best for patients to eat real food, and that is the ultimate goal, there are many situations in recovery in which the use of supplements can be invaluable. Sometimes, especially early in recovery, it can be hard for patients to get in enough calories via food alone.

During early recovery, when early fullness is a common issue, fortified shakes may be easier both physically and mentally to consume than food. And when getting in enough calories by eating calorically dense foods is too tough, we think the use of supplements is a perfectly good alternative. It is always better than not eating enough.

Supplement Products

Nutritional supplements, made by a number of different companies, contain nutrients in a calorically dense liquid or “shake.” Six to eight ounces of these products typically have between 200 and 350 calories, depending on the brand and formulation. Many large supermarket and drugstore chains sell shakes under their own names, some of which we tested as well. The best-known brands sold commercially in the US are Boost and Ensure, which come in different flavors and are usually sold in plastic bottles. The main lines are dairy based, but there are non-dairy versions known as Boost Breeze and Ensure Clear, which are packaged in juice boxes and may be ordered online. There are formulations with even higher caloric density (e.g. Boost Plus). In hospital settings, these products are used for patients who are unable to eat – following a stroke, for instance – or need extra nutrition. They can also be used in tube feeding.

In recent years, additional companies have emerged to compete with the Boost and Ensure brands. Several companies are developing products emphasizing organic and natural ingredients. Not all of these products are designed with the same goal in mind. Some are in fact marketed to a clientele that is concerned about losing or maintaining weight through low-calorie, “healthy” meal or snack replacement. These products could inadvertently displace foods, beverages, and other liquid supplements that would be much better suited for appropriate weight gain and eating disorder recovery, all the while delivering messages that could reinforce eating disorder thinking. We recommend thinking carefully about your objectives, researching the products you plan to buy, and proceeding with caution.

How to Use Supplements

Supplements taste better chilled than at room temperature. They can be added to a meal in lieu of a lower-calorie beverage, drunk as a standalone snack, or used in the preparation of oatmeal, smoothies, or milkshakes. They can be consumed more quickly than solid foods and can serve for quick convenient nutrition, especially on the go.

They can also be used as replacements. In some eating disorder residential treatment centers, three supplements would be considered the nutritional equivalent of a meal. A patient who refused to eat altogether would be offered three nutritional drinks; one who ate half the meal would be asked to drink two; one who ate most of the meal but didn’t finish would be asked to top off with a single supplement. Parents refeeding children at home can decide whether to offer an alternative meal or liquid replacement when a child refuses to eat or finish a meal or snack.

Instead of bringing home a multitude of varieties, select one supplement brand in perhaps one or two flavors. Limiting unnecessary choice will head off an opportunity for the eating disorder to assert itself in the form of pickiness.

Take Home

The take-home message: supplemental shakes can be a great tool for ensuring adequate nutrition during the refeeding process in eating disorder treatment. Finding the supplement best suited to you or your loved one from among the available options can be overwhelming. Substantial caloric density is your first concern – but finding one that suits your palate is essential to making sure it goes down. Fortunately, the major brands have made a variety of flavors and textures from which you can choose.

We look forward to sharing further recommendations on the nutritional aspects as well as the results of our taste test. We taste-tested many so you don’t have to. Stay tuned as our follow-up blog will delve into further supplement guidance.