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A woman cooking in an apron
May 17, 2023

The Role of Nutrition in Eating Disorder Treatment

Veritas Collaborative’s patients generally enter eating disorder treatment mired in food rules and rituals. Their mindsets around food tend to follow a pattern of dichotomous extremes. Types of food and eating behaviors are labeled either “good” or “bad.” Food consumption might alternate between periods of total restriction and severe overconsumption. One might hyperfocus on food when eating or disconnect entirely. Often, the “perfect conditions” must be met to eat, with rigidity around the location, specific foods or food groups, and other people present while eating. Eating can feel like a test that one passes or fails. Disordered eating and eating disorders weaken the mind-body connection, elevating the power of these intense cognitive distortions as the mind takes over as a micromanager of the body’s needs.

At Veritas Collaborative, our multidisciplinary care team creates a safe space to work through the challenges and explore the freedoms that come with a return to balanced eating. Our whole-person care approach helps patients develop greater self-awareness as we work to restore healthy eating behaviors. Through the course of treatment, our patients expand their capacity to express and modulate difficult emotions without reliance on self-defeating food rules and rituals — which is key to sustained eating disorder recovery.

Veritas’ Nutrition Philosophy: A “Can Eat Culture”

At Veritas, we approach nutrition from an inclusive perspective — one that bucks damaging cultural messages about food, rejects the moralized “eat this, not that” mentality, and encourages flexibility and variety with eating.

Our nutrition treatment follows an evidence-backed “Can Eat Culture” paradigm which emphasizes balance and acceptance of all foods. This neutral approach to eating cuts through the food judgment clouding many of our patients’ eating decisions. Instead, the focus is on practicing enjoyment, flexibility, nourishment, and fun with food.

Unlike a disordered eating mindset, within a “Can Eat Culture,” the different nutritional profiles of food do not determine what one can or cannot eat. Fats, fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, convenience foods, desserts — all types of foods provide benefits and some form of energy to keep our bodies functioning. Eating for reasons beyond nutritional content, such as for connection, celebration, community, pleasure, and nostalgia, is part of a peaceful relationship with food. 

Our “Can Eat Culture” also respects and acknowledges the unique nutritional needs of each person, as well as the diversity of cultural experiences and preferences. We strive to support individualization and personal choice that enables nourishment and promotes recovery, which we recognize may vary throughout the recovery journey.

How We Build a “Can Eat Culture” in Eating Disorder Treatment

Using the “Can Eat Culture” framework as a guide, Veritas’ treatment programs equip patients with the sustainable recovery skills needed for a full, well-nourished life.

Meal Plans

Our meal plans are individualized and dietitian-designed to meet the needs of each patient over the course of treatment. No matter the level of care a patient receives, our registered dietitians are here to develop a meal plan that provides necessary structure and nourishment, while also offering appropriate amounts of choice, variety, and flexibility. Veritas can accommodate most dietary restrictions, and our dietitians use their expertise to assess the origins of an individual’s dietary preferences.

Our dietitians work in partnership with our patients to create personalized meal plans. As patients walk through the treatment process, they will use nutrition therapy sessions with their dietitian to learn the advantages of incorporating all foods into recovery eating. Nutrition education is a fundamental part of the recovery process. This knowledge helps our patients reappraise any misinformation about nutrition, challenge previously held harmful food ideas, establish factual beliefs about food, and practice gratitude for their bodies by adequately fueling themselves.

Family Meals

We know that family support is an essential aspect of treatment. That’s why we provide parents and communities of support with the education, skills, and knowledge needed to continue to support their loved ones during and after treatment.

Family meals are a core aspect of treatment at Veritas Collaborative. During these unique shared meals, family members are empowered and leveraged as agents of change by planning, preparing and eating meals together. To help families ease the transition out of treatment, we offer family dining rooms at our sites to simulate a homelike environment.

Mealtime can be challenging in the context of an eating disorder, often provoking complicated emotions and resistance. Family members can lean on the wisdom and guidance of nearby therapists and dietitians to practice supporting and coaching their loved ones. Often, the best way to be there for a struggling loved one at mealtime is by modeling a positive relationship with food. We spend time educating families about our “Can Eat Culture” model to encourage self-examination of any subconscious food biases or judgments. When families work to shift their language around food to one of neutrality, they reduce the risk of harm to their loved ones in recovery. Spending time to foster a healthy, balanced relationship with all foods can be key to insulating a loved one from the harms of disordered eating.

Hands-On Culinary Experiences

Individuals with eating disorders often struggle to prepare food for themselves. Eating disorder thoughts and behaviors can invade the meal preparation process and continue to the table. Our hands-on culinary experiences are staff-facilitated and designed to establish joyful and autonomous food encounters. They provide a space for our patients to explore and overcome intimidation around preparing and consuming a variety of foods – both cognitively and through action – by cooking and eating alongside other patients and staff.

These unique interactive opportunities help our patients work toward a neutral or positive experience in the kitchen. The kitchen environment itself is an important therapeutic component, replicating practical, real-life experiences to build self-reliance and confidence in recovery.

To learn more about how Veritas Collaborative approaches diverse dietary patterns and needs in eating disorder treatment, watch Leah Graves’ presentation titled “The Cultural Culinary Challenge: Managing Varying Nutritional Needs in Eating Disorders Care” on our Recorded Presentations page.

Eating disorders can wreak havoc on an individual’s relationship with food. With the right support and treatment modalities, restoring healthy eating behaviors and building a sense of freedom and choice around food is possible. If you suspect one of your patients needs help repairing their relationship with food and eating, please call one of our professionals at 612-402-3061 or refer them through our online form.

About the Author

Leah Graves, RDN, LDN, CEDRD-S, FAED, is the Vice President of Nutrition and Culinary Services of Accanto Health, the parent company of Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program. Leah has been treating patients with eating disorders for over 30 years. Prior to joining Veritas, Leah was the Manager of Eating Disorders Nutrition Therapy for the Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, OK.  She graduated with the highest distinction from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in 1985 and then began her work with individuals with eating disorders.

Leah is a founding member of the Academy for Eating Disorders where she has served on the Academy’s Executive Team, Board of Directors and Chaired the North American Teaching Days for the International Conference on Eating Disorders in addition to serving the Academy on the Nominating, Fellowship Selection, and Membership Recruitment and Retention Committees. She has also been honored with the distinction of Fellow of the Academy for Eating Disorders.

Leah has been involved in eating disorders advocacy with the National Eating Disorders Association as a member of the Conference Planning Committee and with the Oklahoma Eating Disorders Association where she served as President and Governance Committee Chair. She currently serves on the Clinical Advisory Board for Rock Recovery.

Leah has been invited faculty at many eating disorders conferences including the International Conference on Eating Disorders, Hispano-Latin American Congress on Eating Disorders, International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals Symposium, Renfrew Foundation Conference, Multi-service Eating Disorders Association Conference, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Food and Nutrition Conference, as well as numerous regional and local conferences. Leah has written several publications pertaining to nutrition and eating disorders and is highly respected within the eating disorders field for her expertise in medical nutrition therapy, nutrition counseling, clinical supervision, and research.