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What Does an Eating Disorder Nutritionist Do?

Recovering from an eating disorder can be overwhelming and challenging. But it’s important to know that you are not alone and that help is available. 

Eating disorders are serious medical illnesses that can even be life-threatening. These illnesses are caused by complex genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental interactions.There are many different eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, among others. While each type of eating disorder has various symptoms, they involve a severe preoccupation with food, weight, and body image. 

While eating disorders can be challenging to overcome, treatment can be effective. Research shows that people with eating disorders are far more likely to recover from disordered eating habits if they receive specialized treatment. In most cases, willpower, self-help books, and independent work cannot replace the professional guidance of a therapist or eating disorder nutritionist

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The Bottom Line

  • What is an eating disorder nutritionist or registered dietitian? – A nutritionist simply will not be enough to address navigating the complexities of disordered eating. A registered dietitian's job includes educating you about food and nutrition, creating personalized meal plans to help you meet your health-related goals and correct any existing nutritional deficiencies, and monitoring your weight to help track your progress.
  • Am I a good candidate to work with an eating disorder nutritionist or registered dietitian? – All individuals dealing with disordered eating behaviors can benefit from working with a registered dietitian nutritionist, including people with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder (BED).
  • How an eating disorder dietitian can help you create healthy lifestyle choices – Meal planning, weight monitoring, nutrition counseling, myth-busting, motivational counseling, and exposure and skills work are some ways an eating disorder nutritionist can help you. 

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What is an Eating Disorder Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian?

Treating eating disorders can be a long and complex process that requires the dedicated service of a team of professionals but a nutritionist may not be enough when dealing with a special case. A registered dietitian nutritionist is one of many experts who can play a crucial role in helping patients establish a solid foundation for long-term eating disorder recovery. 

Among the many things registered dietitian nutritionists do they use their knowledge and experience working with nutrition to help clients improve their health and wellness through food. First, a nutritionist can teach their patients more about nutrition. People with eating disorders need to distinguish what is true about food and what isn’t.

It is also reasonably common for eating disorder patients to be malnourished. Working with a registered dietitian nutritionist can help rectify nutritional deficiencies in people who are not eating enough food and people who are binging and purging food before the body absorbs the nutrients.

Am I a Good Candidate to Work with an Eating Disorder Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian?

If you are grappling with an eating disorder or abnormal eating behaviors, you can benefit from seeking an eating disorder specialist. If you are grappling with one of the symptoms below, here is how an eating disorder nutritionist can help you. 

Anorexia

Three in four patients with anorexia, formally known as anorexia nervosa, make a partial recovery. Only 21% fully recover, meaning that most people will continue to struggle with this eating disorder for most of their lives. This study is a good reminder that people with anorexia need extra help with their physical health, eating disorder thoughts and behaviors, and social functioning and mood. 

People with anorexia limit the number of calories and the types of food that they eat. At a certain point, they cannot maintain an appropriate body weight based on their height, age, stature, and physical health. Anorexia can lead to serious health complications, including malnutrition and even death. 

Eating disorder dietitians can help individuals begin nutrition rehabilitation to restore their lost weight. A nutritionist will also teach their patients healthy approaches to food and weight, help restore standard eating patterns, prepare a patient more about nutrition and a balanced diet, and restore a healthy relationship with food and eating. 

Bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves a pattern of compulsive binge-eating and purging behaviors. Binge eating occurs when a large amount of food is consumed in a short period. The food is commonly unhealthy or high in calories, which results in the person feeling guilty for finishing it. Binging is followed by purging to rid the body of calories and fat. This cycle is what defines bulimia. 

People with bulimia typically have a healthy weight and body mass index but believe they are overweight. These false perceptions are what perpetrate their binging and purging behaviors. 

Similar to anorexia, bulimia can take a lifetime to overcome. A nutritionist can help an individual suffering from bulimia in various ways. For one, many nutritionists and dietitians will embrace a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach. The HAES approach encourages individuals to find joy in eating and movement and let go of rules about health that focus on body size and weight loss. 

Binge Eating

Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States. About 1.25% of adult women and 0.42% of adult men have binge eating disorders. 1.6% of teens between 13 and 18 also grapple with this eating disorder. Binge eating disorder can be defined as recurrently eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort), losing control during the binge, and feeling distressed, shame, and guilty after the fact. 

The goals for the treatment of binge eating are to reduce eating binges and achieve healthy eating habits. Many individuals with BED have tried and failed to lose weight independently. That’s where a registered nutritionist or dietitian comes in. A nutritionist can help individuals with BED healthily lose weight by ensuring their nutritional needs are met. 

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How an Eating Disorder Dietitian Can Help You Create Healthy Lifestyle Choices

If you are living with an eating disorder, there are many ways that you can benefit from working with an eating disorder nutritionist. 

Meal Plan

A registered dietitian nutritionist will help each one of their patients create a customized meal plan. A meal plan is a tool that is often used in eating disorder recovery that provides a framework for “normal eating.” This meal plan will help patients achieve a healthier weight and introduce “challenging foods” into their diet. 

Meal plans provide structure and guidance for patients with eating disorders. Many individuals with eating disorders no longer have the ability to recognize physical hunger cues. Following a meal plan for a short period regulates normal eating behavior and ensures you consume enough nutrients. Treatment of eating disorders occasionally involves sitting down for meals and eating alongside your dietitian so that you can work directly with the issues you are facing. 

Weight Monitoring

Depending on who else is part of your eating disorder medical team, a registered dietitian may also be tasked with monitoring your weight. Weight monitoring is an excellent way to track an individual’s progress to see whether or not a treatment plan is working. If you aren’t progressing as your dietitian hoped, your nutritionist may alter your meal or treatment plan for a better response. 

Nutrition Therapy and Counseling

As you work through your eating disorder with a registered dietitian, your healthcare professional will also teach you more about nutrition education and your specific eating disorder. An eating disorder nutritionist can teach you more about the nutrition your body needs and why, and advise you on how much someone your size, age, and sex needs to consume to maintain a healthy weight. Suppose you have lost your ability to determine what your body feels like when it's hungry and full due to irregular eating behaviors. In that case, a nutritionist can also walk you through recognizing these physical cues. 

Myth Bust

Almost two-thirds of eating disorder treatment manuals contain information not backed up by science or evidence. Rather than turning to the internet and books for information about nutrition and eating disorders, consult your registered dietitian. Nutritionists and dietitians are experts in the information and misinformation people absorb about food. Something you read online could be a “new fad” or trendy diet. Dietitians can help dispel information you may have read online and equip you with the tools to look at information more critically.

Motivational Work and Support

Many people with eating disorders are ambivalent about treating their illnesses. Often, a nutritionist will need to utilize motivational tactics to help them move toward a place where they want to get better and improve their health. 

A certain degree of fear and uncertainty in eating disorder patients is expected. A nutritionist can work with an eating disorder patient to understand what types of motivational counseling work best for them. 

Exposure and Skills Work

A dietitian and nutritionist will often accompany their patient to places that put stress or pressure on their eating disorders. For instance, a nutritionist sometimes accompanies a patient on trips to the grocery store or dining out at a restaurant. 

Most patients will have their own “challenging foods'' that they struggle to incorporate into their diet. To work through eating those “challenging foods,”  will practice eating them in sessions with their dietitian or nutritionist. By chaperoning their patient during these potentially triggering situations, a nutritionist can help develop strategies to help the patient relax during these moments. Over time, patients will slowly feel more comfortable tackling these situations independently. 

Is an Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian the Same as an Eating Disorder Nutritionist? 

While every dietitian is a nutritionist, not every nutritionist is a dietitian. Every registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) will have a bachelor’s degree, hundreds of hours of supervised experience, and have passed a certifying exam in dietetics. 

In the United States, a nutritionist can be anyone who gives general nutritional advice. If you want to work with the most advanced registered nutritionist, you will want to seek out a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). 

Setting Realistic Success Goals for Working with an Eating Disorder Nutritionist 

While working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist can go a long way in treating your mental illness, it is not a band-aid solution. An eating disorder nutritionist can equip you with all the tools and information you need to improve your health, but there are still many things you will need to do on your own. Full recovery can take years;  for many, it’s not easy. Many people struggle with slips and relapses, even years after starting  treatment. 

Work with your treatment team to develop a plan to gradually face situations that make you anxious, including eating certain foods, dealing with feelings of fullness, and tolerating anxiety when you do not exercise. 

How to Get Started with an Eating Disorder Nutritionist Today 

If you are ready to begin your treatment and recovery process, you can start with an eating disorder nutritionist near you today. All you need to do is take a short quiz to begin your work at Top Nutrition Coaching. Top Nutrition Coaching’s team will match you with an eating disorder nutritionist in its network. 

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About the author

Nicolette Star Maggiolo, RD, LDN
I'm a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with education from Boston University and clinical training from both Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I specialize in helping the military and non-military individuals embrace nutrition as a partner in both their mental and physical health.

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