There are many reasons why recovering from an eating disorder is challenging. We all need food to survive, but those trying to recover from an eating disorder must find a new way to approach food. When you have an eating disorder, food often becomes something that you want to restrict, binge on or binge and then purge. During recovery, however, food needs to become something that’s nourishing and healthy.
Add on to that the messages about food, eating and ideal body size that are so pervasive throughout advertising, social media and society in general, and eating disorder recovery becomes even more challenging.
[SEE: Eating Disorder Statistics.]
However, there are ways you can successfully recover from eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Here are six suggestions from experts who regularly treat those with eating disorders.
1. Seek professional help. “In most cases, things like willpower, self-help books or blogs cannot replace the professional guidance of a therapist, dietitian and physician,” says Amanda Fialk, a licensed clinical social worker and chief of clinical services for The Dorm, a treatment center for youth with locations in New York City and Washington, D.C. Plus, if you choose to follow advice from non-professional sources — say, the internet — you could do your body more harm than good.
A good first step is to contact an eating disorders treatment facility that has various levels of treatment — residential and outpatient — as its staff can assess your symptoms and let you know what type of care is appropriate, says Kimberly M. Daniels, a clinical psychologist in Hartford, Connecticut, who specializes in eating disorders.
If that’s not available in your area, then look for an outpatient therapist or dietitian with experience treating eating disorders. People with eating disorders have greater success when working with a specialized team of different health professionals, including therapists, dietitians and physicians, Fialk says. A therapist familiar with the “Health at Every Size” approach can be an important part of recovery, Daniels says. Also called HAES, this is a way of thinking used by some professionals to promote good health without focusing on reaching a specific body size. It also emphasizes the cause of why someone may have an eating disorder rather than focusing on the weight of a person.
Make sure to attend your therapy sessions consistently for best results, advises licensed counselor Christine Brannan, who is based in Houston.
Plus, don’t neglect the role of supportive non-professionals, including trusted family and friends, as well as support groups. “Support groups provide a safe environment where you can talk freely about your eating disorder and get advice and support from people who know firsthand what you’re going through,” Fialk says. One such support group is Eating Disorders Anonymous, which offers online, phone and in-person meetings.
2. Be gentle with yourself. One common symptom across people with eating disorders is being self-critical, Fialk says. In turn, this can increase feelings of shame, despair, anxiety and depression. Being gentle with yourself and taking better care of yourself requires work, but it should be part of your recovery. Some specific ways you can be more gentle with yourself both during and after recovery include:
— Focusing on your positive qualities.
— Challenging negative self-talk — for instance, “I’m not good enough” or “I’ll never be able to do this.”
— Taking care of and pampering your body. This could be as simple as a candlelight bath or getting a manicure.
— Prioritizing your own mental and physical health.
— Filling your life with positive activities.
If you’re not accustomed to better self-care, then you can talk about how to reach this goal with the professionals on your treatment team. The use of gratitude lists, positive affirmation exercises or similar activities could help as well, Fialk says.
[See: 12 Potential Signs of an Eating Disorder.]
3. Work with a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. “The disorder is rarely just about food, and this step of letting someone manage their food intake can be both a challenge and a relief,” Brannan says. In other words, people with eating disorders focus heavily on what they eat or don’t eat. Depending on the specific eating disorder they have, a person may have their own self-created restrictions surrounding food. By committing to work with a dietitian, the burden of those food-related rules and restrictions are removed. It’s not only healthier for those in recovery, but it also can be a relief.
A dietitian will help teach about the importance of eating certain foods, review what you already know and ensure you’re following a nutritious and healthy food plan, says registered dietitian Kimberly Barton of Bair Aesthetics in Columbus, Ohio. This is done without an emphasis on dieting. In fact, the avoidance of dieting is a major part of recovery.
“The important thing is to remember you are fueling your body and giving it the energy it needs for your heart, lungs and brain to function,” Barton says. An open give-and-take between you and your dietitian is key too, Barton says. “I find it vital for my clients to be an open book with me, and I have to build that trust and rapport through our treatment and therapies,” she says.
If you find it challenging to follow the dietitian’s recommendations, it’s better to be honest about it, for example. That way, you and the dietitian can collaborate and find more effective ways to follow a healthier eating plan tailored for your needs.
4. Avoid your triggers. During recovery, there likely will be certain people, places or things that can trigger an eating disorder behavior, Barton says. Here are a few examples:
— Spending time with people who make you feel self-conscious about your body.
— Going to a certain restaurant.
— Seeing scales and mirrors around your home.
— Following certain people on social media.
— Keeping certain foods in the home. This could be a trigger for someone with binge eating disorder or bulimia.
— Experiencing certain periods of added stress, such as the holidays, final exams or bathing suit season. “Disordered eating is a coping mechanism for stress, fear, loneliness, sadness or other unpleasant emotions or triggers,” Fialk says. “One may refuse or restrict food to feel in control, binge for comfort or purge to punish yourself.”
Becoming aware of your triggers can help you be more successful with your recovery and help to avoid slips and relapses. Once you know your triggers, find positive alternative ways to cope, such as the ideas listed below.
5. Spend time on other things you enjoy doing. “Eating disorders take a lot of time and energy to maintain. Many people struggle in recovery because they don’t know how to fill the time they now have,” Daniels says. Find things you like to do that don’t involve eating or a focus on weight. These types of activities become especially important once you know some of your triggers for eating disorder related behavior.
Fialk shares a few ideas for enjoyable non-food activities:
— Listen to music.
— Play with a pet.
— Read a book.
— Take a walk.
— Write in a journal.
— Start a hobby.
— Try yoga or meditation.
— Volunteer for a cause that you support.
[Read: Identifying Eating Disorders and Body Image issues in Boys.]
6. Accept relapses and celebrate successes. Recovering from an eating disorder is a lifelong journey. It will always be challenging, as it’s not a linear process, Barton says. A 2017 Journal of Eating Disorders review article of studies found that 9% to 52% of people with anorexia experience relapses.
Instead of saying you’re fully recovered, it may be more accurate to say that you’re in remission, Brannan describes. “If one continues to practice the healthy thoughts and behaviors that support recovery, then it will stay in remission,” she says.
This is why success is viewed in small increments, such as one meal at a time, one minute at a time, one day at a time or one week at a time.
If a relapse into your old behavior does occur, use it as a learning experience. Talk about it with your health treatment team to reflect on why it happened and how you can change your behavior in the future. “Relapse actually helps us to understand even more why the disorder is happening,” Daniels says.
Think of your eating disorder recovery goal as progression, not perfection — and practice forgiveness and compassion with yourself, Brannan advises.
At the same time, plan to celebrate your positive choices, such as calling a friend to talk about an urge or taking a walk instead of ordering two pizzas. Think of a small but positive way you can celebrate those choices — maybe you can visit a park, do an extra yoga session or buy yourself something. “Recognize and celebrate these as they will build your confidence that you can continue to live a healthy, sustainable life,” Barton advises.
The National Eating Disorders Association has a toll-free, confidential helpline, if you or someone you know needs support or wants to find local treatment options: 800-931-2237.
Vanessa Caceres began writing for U.S. News in 2017, originally specializing in diabetes. She’s a nationally published health, travel and food writer with an undergraduate degree in journalism and psychology from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and a graduate degree in linguistics/bilingual education from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. In addition to U.S. News, Vanessa’s health writing has been published with Everyday Health, Self, Newsday HealthLink, EyeWorld, The Rheumatologist and various other publications. She is a member of Business Networking International (BNI). Connect with her on Twitter at @FloridaCulture.