Edit: A reminder I write for adults in active recovery. This is not a blog saying that children, or people who are generally resisting recovery, or people who are in need of IP care, or people who can not (yet) access desire should not be on a meal plan. As I have stated, meal plans have a place for some people in recovery. The point of this blog, is that they are not a sustainable, long-term solution for full recovery, and should not be treated like the holy grail of how to eat.
For full recovery to be achieved, a person at some stage has to learn how to be in relationship with their body. If a method of eating is given, it should be stressed, that this is a temporary, non-perfect, stop-gap. Not doing so can set people in recovery up for a life-time of disordered eating.
Here is a snippet from an email from a client:
I’ve got so much conflicting information from different treatment centres. Eat three meals and two snacks a day. Eat three meals and three snacks a day. Eat by exchanges. Eat by a meal plan. I’m bogged down on the detail and the numbers.
I feel like I have exchanged one set of rules for another. My eating disorder rules have turned into being my eating disorder recovery rules.
I’ll keep the person who gave me that quote anonymous. Whilst this was one person’s experience, it is also many people’s experience. I have heard this wail many times. I don’t think any individual treatment provider means to do harm. I think most of them are rather oblivious to the lives of their patients when that patient moves on, so they are not considering that a single person may have many experiences of treatment and each time be told of a new “way to eat.”
Or maybe, for many people working in treatment centres, they simply don’t know better. They are newly qualified, relatively cheap to employ, and don’t have the confidence or the knowledge to do anything other than follow the protocol.
Either way, treatment providers are generally good people who are trying to help. And treatment has to change. Treatment for eating disorders needs to unequivocally support the patient’s relationship with their own body. Right now, treatment often actively encourages distrust between the patient and their biology, specifically their desire to eat and their ability to eat in an unrestricted, natural, and confident manner.
Stop methodizing eating.
Telling someone a “way to eat” is ridiculous. Let’s pause and think about that for a moment and wonder how the fuck the human race evolved without the exchanges system and/or meal plans.
Meal plans, exchanges, counting calories, whatever the method of the moment is — it is all disordered.
You can’t cure disordered eating with disordered eating.
I know your intent is to provide a stepping stone, a pathway towards normalcy. But in many cases, the second you tell someone with an eating disorder to eat two proteins, two carbs, and one fat at lunch, unless you also told them that they are allowed to ignore it all and eat to hunger and desire should hunger and desire bless them, you have fucked them over. With the best of intentions, I get it. But you just took them out of one cage and popped them in another. Sure, they may achieve a smigen of weight gain, or be able to eat a bit more for a while, or they may change an eating pattern you were working on changing. You will rejoice about that. I hate to break your bubble but if you did achieve anything, it’s probably temporary.
It is temporary, because like I said, you just put them in another cage. And this cage is different so something may look different for a little while, but all the cages morph back into the same problem in the end. Your client will become trapped in and obsessed with the new method of eating you gave them.
Why? Because all methods, ways, plans, of eating are disordered. Quite simply, this is not how humans eat. We don’t eat by numbers. We don’t eat by macronutrients. We eat by desire. Always have. Always should. As soon as you focus someone on anything other than eating by desire, you make them eat dishonestly. You disable the ability to even detect desire — let alone follow it — when you break food down into macronutrients. Even worse, you collaborate with their eating disorder, which is already telling them they can’t trust their desire to eat.
Oh I know, it’s messy and scary to eat by desire. And I know that many of your patients turn white at the thought of it. And some can’t detect their desire at all. Others refute it. Helping people with restrictive eating disorders uncover what it means to eat truthfully, and without restriction is difficult. It is so much easier to give them a sheet on it and tell them to eat by numbers and job done. Except it never is.
Well, it’s not job done for your client. It might be for you. Your client will try, and at some point stumble — because eating by numbers or exchanges or whatever isn’t natural so nobody can truly be happy and free doing so. And they will go see someone else. Then they will be given a new sheet. This one will say only one carb, two proteins, one fat for lunch. Or it will say three snacks rather than two. Because whomever wrote it read a different book on nutrition than you. And then that client will experience anxiety, doubt, hopelessness, because they will lose trust that anyone actually knows how to tell them to eat.
And the secret aways was that nobody else was ever supposed to tell them how to eat. Because that was always supposed to be the job of their body. And because you never taught them to eat to desire, they will forever be searching for something that doesn’t actually exist: an equation for eating.
Please, use meal plans with caution. And if you do, heavily preface them with words explaining that this is a temporary measure, and not the bible, and that trusting and listening to one’s body is the most glorious and achievable thing. The true path to health and happiness. Because for some people meal plans are needed tools. Stepping stones. But don’t give them out willy nilly. Some, most, of your clients are secretly desperate for you to tell them it is okay, optional actually, to listen to their screaming hunger.
Assisting someone on the path to collaborating with and trusting their own body is an incredible gift to give.
Nobody has to give you permission to eat. Eating is messy. That’s okay.
Eat what you want, when you want it, in the quantity that you want it in. Without judgement.
Your body is the expert here. Listen to it. If your body asks for chocolate donuts and sausages for breakfast that is what you eat. Your body knows what it needs.
Recovery can be enjoyable. Eating is enjoyable.