The Role of the Dietitian in Eating Disorder Treatment

The Role of the Dietitian in Eating Disorder Treatment

By Timberline Knolls Staff

Treating a person who has developed an eating disorder can be a complex process that requires the dedicated service of a multidisciplinary team of professionals.

Dietitians are among the many experts who can play a vital role in helping people establish a solid foundation for long-term eating disorder recovery.

Depending on a person’s specific needs, their comprehensive treatment for an eating disorder may address the medical, psychological, behavioral, and social concerns that contributed to or were exacerbated by their struggles with disordered eating. Services provided by dietitians can contribute to positive outcomes in each of these areas.

In an article that was published Nov. 17, 2020, on the Journal of Eating Disorders website, authors Shane Jeffrey and Gabriella Heruc wrote that dietitians’ contributions to eating disorder treatment include identifying “the severity of malnutrition, the presence of disordered eating habits, and deficits in nutritional skills and knowledge that inhibit the attainment of adequate nutrition.”

In other words, dietitians at eating disorder treatment facilities may work with patients to help them achieve improved health by expanding their understanding of vital nutrition-related concepts, eliminating self-defeating behaviors, and developing a better relationship with food.

Accomplishing these efforts may involve services such as:

  • Assessing patients’ eating behavior patterns
  • Providing nutrition counseling and education
  • Creating individualized meal plans for patients
  • Helping patients develop more effective coping strategies

A dietitian’s work in eating disorder treatment can involve both providing valuable information and dispelling myths or misconceptions.

For example, one unfortunately common misunderstanding about nutrition is that following a “healthy diet” somehow means abandoning enjoyable foods, sacrificing choice, and limiting variety. Not true! As dietitians help patients develop their meal planning skills, they will introduce them to the wide range of delicious options. Patients learn that, truly, all foods fit.

The concepts of balance and choice can also be key elements in a dietitian’s work with patients in an eating disorder treatment facility.

People who receive treatment for eating disorders may have a wide range of problematic behaviors from restricting to bingeing to compensatory methods. In all cases, a dietitian can help the patient develop a meal plan that provides necessary structure while also offering appropriate amounts of choice, variety, and flexibility. The dietitian can also help the patient understand the nutrition and behavioral concepts that are fundamental to a healthy relationship with food. For many people this creates the foundation for moving towards developing interoceptive awareness and eating intuitively.

As a result, patients won’t merely follow a schedule that tells them when, what, and how much they should eat. Instead, they will have a firm grasp on the reasons for their new behaviors. This can help them take ownership of their continued recovery and escape the fear- or frustration-based patterns that had previously characterized their eating behaviors.

To support patients in following their new meal plans, dietitians may also work with them to develop healthier coping skills. This may be especially beneficial for patients who had previously engaged in disordered eating behaviors in an attempt to punish themselves for perceived failures or numb themselves from emotional pain.

Regaining control of one’s thoughts, decisions, and actions is a vital part of eating disorder recovery. Through continued personalized service, dietitians help patients develop the knowledge, skills, and capabilities that can allow them to achieve long-term recovery and experience improved quality of life.