The Role of Nutritionists in Eating Disorder Treatment

May 6, 2024

Written by Joan Zhang, clinical review by Mia Donley, MPH, RD, LD

It’s common for people who experience eating disorders to have a complicated relationship with food. Navigating the fear and anxiety around eating can be one of the most difficult parts of recovery.  Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN)  are food educators. They help people understand the value, importance, and benefits of eating a variety of foods, and they offer customized meal plans and guidance to help people live their healthiest lives. This includes helping people recovering from eating disorders. For those who have struggled to have a good relationship with food and their bodies, a nutritionist can be a pivotal figure in helping them transform their view on nutrition, reduce stress in making food choices, and begin taking care of their bodies. 

A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) has completed a bachelor’s degree (or higher) and passed a licensing exam. They have dedicated years of hard work to understanding the biological, physiological, and even psychological components of food to better serve their clients. Eating disorder nutritionists have undergone additional training in eating disorders and nutrition to serve their clients.

What Is an Eating Disorder Nutritionist?

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics highlights the negative impacts of disordered eating and eating disorders on mental and physical wellness; a nutritionist aims to aid recovery by offering education and guidance on making food choices and exploring the relationship between food and body.

An eating disorder (ED) nutritionist has specifically trained and focuses on helping people in recovery from eating disorders change their relationship with food. They support people with a variety of eating disorders–from binge eating, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. They also support those with disordered eating who may not have a formal diagnosis but struggle with dieting, over-exercising, or negative feelings towards food and body. Their goal is to help each client personally learn about the nuances of food and create a supportive role for it in their lives. 

ED nutritionists have undergone specialized training and may hold certification in treating eating disorders through the lens of nutrition. They are not mental health counselors but rather an important member of a person's recovery team as they work toward healing from an eating disorder. 

Why Are Nutritionists Part of Eating Disorder Treatment? 

An eating disorder is not merely about body dysmorphia. It affects the way a person perceives themselves and how they view food and its role in their life. For some, food is seen almost as a threat to their well-being rather than an essential ingredient to survival. For others, food is a means to cope, numb, or to keep safe. 

Eating disorder nutritionists have three key roles in ED treatment:

Dismantling Diet Culture

Eating disorder nutritionists help challenge unhelpful and deep-rooted beliefs about what your body should look like. They unpack the myths around common diet fads, explore the impacts of on-and-off dieting, and help clients begin to find a deeper appreciation for their bodies.

Diet culture is fuel for disordered eating, and toxic standards projected on social media and in our culture can worsen self-perception and body dysmorphia. Although nutritionists don’t act as psychologists or therapists, they do help counter many unhelpful beliefs and stereotypes about what someone “should” look like or how someone “should” eat through their knowledge of physiology and nutrition.

Creating a Safe Space to Discuss Food Fear & Anxiety 

Clients can explore their complex feelings about food with their ED nutritionist.This includes feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame. You are given a safe space to be yourself, be honest about your feelings, and start working toward expansive views on food and body that support your well-being. Your time with your nutritionist is designed to help you overcome long-held, limiting beliefs and find freedom from your anxiety and fear.

Helping Clients Re-define Health Without a Focus on Weight 

You don’t have to be in a smaller body to have an eating disorder. In fact, less than 6% of individuals with eating disorders are medically “underweight.” For people in larger bodies, weight stigma–the discrimination towards people based on body weight and size–also impacts health as they may be less likely to be treated for an eating disorder. Eating disorders can damage your physical and mental health without any changes in your weight. Eating disorders impact the heart, digestion, and mood, with serious consequences for your body. When working with an ED nutritionist, you may explore treatment that’s unique to your health goals and focused on behaviors rather than weight. You also might re-define what health looks like in a weight-neutral lens.  

What to Expect When Working with a Nutritionist For Disordered Eating?

Depending on the type of disordered eating, a nutritionist customizes their approach to support the individual’s needs and treatment goals. They can help patients in many ways, including: 

Discover the Science and Benefits of Food 

Nutritionists highlight the science of food, from the role of carbohydrates to the importance of sugar in maintaining regulation of the body. By learning about the unique role of food in well-being, clients begin to separate unhelpful beliefs from scientific fact. 

Learn About Nutritional Needs

An eating disorder nutritionist helps patients learn about their body’s unique dietary needs and nutritional needs. This allows them to make more informed choices about what they eat based on their body’s needs, which can vary in different stages of recovery. 

Receive Customized Meal Strategies 

Meal plans aren’t a list of things to eat and not eat. Meal planning can be a form of self-care, especially when things feel chaotic in eating disorder recovery. ED nutritionists for eating disorders recognize that many patients are struggling with intense emotions and anxiety when they eat. Just making meals can be an extremely stressful event for them. ED nutritionists work with clients to come up with unique strategies to explore fear foods, meal times, and cooking. Meal plans can ease some of this anxiety and make it easier to stay consistent with meals, explore a variety of foods, or give some predictability. 

Explore the Relationship Between Eating Environments and Eating Patterns

Eating disorders and disordered eating often have environmental triggers. The ED nutritionist helps their clients unpack their unique situation and develop supportive ways of eating and enjoying food. This can include creating a safer environment for eating, changing their surroundings as needed, or finding support and community to reduce their eating disorder symptoms. 

Learn How to Develop Coping Strategies Around Food

Clients often can feel “out of control” with food or their eating disorder behaviors. This can be caused by a multitude of factors like environment, family, culture, having certain foods off-limit or put on a pedestal. An ED nutritionist helps clients address these feelings and coping strategies around these factors in collaboration with the team therapist. An ED nutritionist will also work to remove the stigma around food and eating behaviors and understand how it might serve the client in that moment.   

Learn to Eat Intuitively

Intuitive eating is a personal process of honoring your health by listening and responding to your body’s cues.You learn to use internal cues to guide taking care of your body’s needs with hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. Intuitive eating is not a hunger-fullness diet, but a self-care eating framework to empower others to take care of their body in a way that makes sense for them. Intuitive eating is usually explored at later stages of eating disorder recovery.  Eating disorder nutritionists help you connect with your body and practice honoring your hunger and fullness in different situations. s. They also support you in making peace with food, challenging food rules, discovering satisfaction with food, and exploring emotions and eating.  

Arise Approach to Nutritionist Support and ED Recovery

  • Collaborative — We work with you to build an individualized care plan, taking your unique needs and preferences into account every step of the way. You’re never alone with Arise.
  • Curious  — The team at Arise knows recovery is a long road, and we are open to exploring new options and helping every person find solutions that work for them. Our program encourages you to get to know yourself better and learn from others as you heal.
  • Compassionate —  We encourage compassion throughout the healing process, supporting the value of self-care and self-love throughout recovery.

Ready to get support? Join Arise today.