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A pencil and notebook sits on top of a kitchen towel with wooden spoons off the left. - Best meal planning for eating disorder
March 7, 2022

The Benefits of Meal Plans in Eating Disorder Recovery

Meal plans are often an essential part of eating disorder treatment and recovery. Developed by Registered Dietitians as part of a comprehensive treatment plan, eating disorder meal plans are valuable in providing structure and ensuring that the individual gets the variety and amount of food they need. In this blog, we will cover the basics of meal plans, as well as some different types of meal plans used in eating disorder recovery.

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What Is a Meal Plan for Eating Disorder Recovery? 

While meal plans are often used in fad diets, a meal plan for eating disorder recovery is very different. First of all, meal plans for fad diets are often not created by a Registered Dietitian and are not individualized. Meal plans in recovery are created for an individual’s specific needs by a Registered Dietitian. 

While fad diets establish diet culture rules, often exclude essential nutrients, and reinforce shame, meal plans for eating disorder recovery provide a framework to meet individual needs while allowing flexibility and a variety of food types. Instead of being restrictive in nature, they are additive and focus on ensuring that nutritional needs are met. Eating disorder recovery meal plans also set the stage for future eating practices in addition to providing resources to use as a backup as needed. 

The level of structure can vary depending on what is best for each individual. Some patients require a highly detailed exchange-based meal plan, while others may need to simply follow an intuitive eating-based approach. None of the meal plan types are better or worse than the other. What is important is providing the appropriate level of support and structure. Often, meal plans are modified over time to adjust to wherever the person is at in their recovery from an eating disorder. 

To reiterate the difference between fad diets and eating disorder meal plans, it is important to emphasize that the goals of recovery meal plans are NOT to:

  • Lose weight or control weight
  • Restrict food
  • Promote one food, nutrient, or type of food over another
  • Create a “perfect, healthy eater”
  • Follow a meal plan forever

Now that we truly understand why meal plans in recovery are different from non-medical diets, let’s move on to some different types of meal plans that can help people manage an eating disorder.

Types of Meal Plans to Help With Eating Disorders

What Is The (Eating Disorder) Exchange System?

The exchange-based meal plan is the most common meal plan style used in the eating disorder field, though the exchange categories and portions differ among treatment centers. The focus of this plan is mainly on the regularity of eating, as well as portions and balance. 

The eating disorder exchange system is a meal plan system organized around exchange lists. These lists contain foods grouped together because of their nutritional similarities. The seven exchange lists include the following: grains, protein, fruits, vegetables, calcium/milk, fats, and desserts. The eighth category is listed as “other” and is most often used for supplements to the meal plan. This exchange system has proven to be essential in helping to re-regulate the eating process and support weight restoration and/or stabilization. When using the eating disorder exchange system, dietitians may omit nutrient information related to the exchange list, as that could be triggering for someone recovering from an eating disorder.  

What Is The Plate-by-Plate Approach to Eating Disorder Recovery?

The Plate-by-Plate Approach was developed by Registered Dietitians for children and young adolescents as a supplemental meal planning tool for parents, but it can be used for adults as well. This method incorporates five food groups, including grain/starch, vegetable/fruit, protein, fats, and dairy. There are two visual plate model variations, one for weight restoration and one for weight stabilization. There are three key aspects to this meal plan type:

  1. Put parents in charge of all aspects of food
  2. Utilize a 10-inch plate
  3. Emphasize variety and exposure to all foods from the start (dependent on parent knowledge/nutrition counseling)

What Is The Rule of 3’s Meal Plan?

Also developed by a Registered Dietitian, the Rule of 3’s method focuses on regularity of eating and eating a balanced diet, in order to help in recovering from an eating disorder.

The Rule of 3’s meal plan is categorized by six different food groups, including calcium, grains/starch/complex, carbohydrates, proteins, fruits or vegetables, and fats. This plan is more appropriate for someone who has a moderate or high risk of refeeding syndrome or someone who is experiencing moderate or severe malnutrition. The Rule of 3’s is made up specifically of these guidelines:

  1. Eat at least three meals and up to three snacks a day (you might think of this as a breakfast, lunch, and dinner meal plan)
  2. Eat at least three food groups per meal (and two per snack)
  3. Allow no more than three hours between eating

What Is an Intuitive Eating Meal Plan for Eating Disorders?

Intuitive eating is a meal plan system that is based on following one’s hunger and fullness cues, and it is less structured than the other meal plans we have discussed.

Intuitive eating is even something that individuals can adopt beyond eating disorder recovery. Intuitive eating is about reconnecting with the body’s physical hunger and fullness signals in order to determine when and how much to eat. This method takes a lot of work because often those who are experiencing eating disorders lose their ability to read their own hunger cues. Those suffering with or recovering from an eating disorder need to work closely with an eating disorder specialist to explore the best way to transition to this style while being careful not to inadvertently slip back into disordered patterns.

Key Takeaways About Using Meal Plans to Aid in Eating Disorder Recovery

  • Meal plans provide structure, support, and guidance, helping individuals establish a healthy relationship with food and promote nutritional rehabilitation.
  • They offer a predictable routine, reduce anxiety around mealtime, and assist in gradually reintroducing regular eating patterns.
  • Meal plans also play a vital role in weight restoration, ensuring individuals receive adequate nourishment and energy to support physical and psychological healing.
  • By working closely with treatment professionals, implementing personalized meal plans can enhance accountability, foster mindfulness, and contribute to sustainable recovery in eating disorder treatment.

Choosing the correct meal plan for an individual’s recovery is essential for correcting malnutrition, providing structure, and challenging disordered behaviors. We hope we have provided more insight into some of the different types of meal plans used in recovery, as well as their importance. 

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If you would like to learn more about the eating disorder treatment we offer at Veritas Collaborative, visit the Care We Offer page on our website.