Nutrition is not about dieting. That’s the mission Leah Graves is on — to correct the misconception that diets and nutrition are one and the same. As one of the original founders of the Academy for Eating Disorders and a co-founder of the Nutrition Special Interest Group, Graves is a seasoned dietitian with more than 36 years of nutrition experience working alongside patients with eating disorders and has worked to establish common practices that are used today.
“When I entered this field, there wasn’t anything to guide us, and there were very few of us doing the work,” she says. “My career path has always been more of a calling than a job. I’ve always said that I want to work myself out of a job. I want my work to result in a decrease in eating disorders, where there is less need for high levels of care.”
As vice president of nutrition and culinary services at Veritas Collaborative, Graves and her team provide patients with a blend of best-practices nutritional science and quality culinary systems, including guided meal planning and hands-on preparation, private family dining rooms, one-on-one cooking lessons, meal coaching and comprehensive meal support. Together, they support positive recovery outcomes by creating treatments that establish individualized nutrition goals and effectively staged eating plans.
In honor of National Nutrition Month, Graves discusses the importance of nutrition — not only to our health and wellbeing, but also in how we connect to one another.
Achieving Connected Eating
Contrary to society’s take on diets, nutritional science isn’t about limiting or counting calories, being rigid about food choices or weight loss. “I think our culture has got dieting and nourishment really confused,” Graves says. “There’s great cultural significance to breaking bread together, but in the U.S. we have a diet mentality that intrudes into our meals — with good and bad and do’s and don’ts — instead of them being a place to take nourishment, to support our ability to be in the world and connect to others.”
Graves uses the term internally-directed eating, or connected eating, to define when the body’s signals work together. In other words, consuming food for nourishment and stopping when full. The idea harnesses internal direction and honoring one’s body through nourishment — something we do as children. Little children are balanced and reasonable eaters, eating when they’re hungry and pushing away their plate when they’re not.
By reconnecting with the body, honoring its needs, and making choices to support those needs, nutrition is about nourishment, and eating is about making choices about how to get that nourishment. “Nourishment fuels us to work, love, and play,” she says. “It plays an important role in providing us with the building blocks for many things that help us to function as humans — to grow, to develop, and to sustain.”
Understanding All Foods Fit
An essential principle of internally-directed eating is that “all foods fit” and that there are no bad foods. (The one exception is if one is allergic to a food.) “There aren’t good or bad foods,” Graves says. “There are just choices to make. Different choices are optimal at different times. Foods can’t be moral or immoral but we use terms that really attach moral value to them. Yet the lentil salad I ate today did not have any moral value, and I’m not a better human being for having eaten it or not eaten it.”
The principle of legalizing all foods highlights that there is a time and place for fun foods that have been vilified in the diet-focused media. And when people try to follow rigid food rules, they may end up overconsuming the very foods they are trying to avoid. On the other hand, following the “all foods fit” paradigm and including fun foods can actually achieve more balanced and reasonable meals.
Veritas’ Approach to Nutrition in Treatment
At Veritas, Graves and her team apply an individualized approach to nutrition in treatment. Every patient has a personalized eating plan that they create in tandem with their dietitian. “It’s like an outline for eating,” she says. “You know what you need at a minimum to gather on your plate at a meal. You might need a little more, but you definitely don’t need less than that.”
As individuals progress, the eating plan becomes more flexible, with the goal of helping patients learn connected eating. This means being able to use what your body’s telling you and what your mind knows is a need. While all individuals at Veritas begin with structured plans, they work away from them at their own pace. They learn to enjoy connected eating, which allows them to function in a healthy way in the world outside of a treatment setting.
Connecting Over Nutrition
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics created National Nutrition Month to invite everyone to learn about making informed food choices and develop healthful eating habits. This year, celebrate by breaking bread and bonding with friends and family. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Cook together
Gather your friends and family, as safety permits, and set out on an adventure in the kitchen. Select a new recipe that you can all work on together, or divide the meal up into courses that you can each work on.
- Meal plan with a friend
Discover new recipes and load up on balanced ingredients by planning your meals for the week with a friend. Be sure to share how your new meals turn out with one another.
- Dine as a group
As safety permits, host a picnic or outdoor potluck. Take it a step further and create a theme that participants can contribute toward.
- Discuss nourishment
Spark conversations with your family and friends about honoring your body and nourishing it so you can live life fully — with work, love, and play.
We believe in the power of ongoing support in the recovery journey. No matter where you are in your journey, we can support your forward movement — get in touch today to find out how.
Leah Graves is the Vice President of Nutrition and Culinary Services at Veritas Collaborative and 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.