Can gardening aid in eating disorder recovery?

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Professionally guided gardening, or horticultural therapy, is a type of therapy that can reduce anxiety, enhance mood, and improve your relationship to food and eating. This is why it can often be helpful for people who are in recovery from an eating disorder, like anorexia nervosa (AN), or orthorexia. (1)

Last updated on 
April 20, 2022
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Horticultural therapy and how it works

Horticultural therapy is different from gardening at home, because it involves professional guidance from a specialized horticultural therapist. These therapists have extensive knowledge related to human science, plant science, and the principles of horticultural therapy. (2)

People in eating disorder recovery who engage in horticultural therapy participate in person-centered, goal-oriented gardening within an individualized treatment plan. It is therapeutic for many people in eating disorder recovery, because, in caring for and nurturing plants, patients are often able to understand how they need to give themselves that same care and love. (1) And that care begins with feeding themselves  nutritious meals and engaging in joyful movement. 

Gardening also gives you the opportunity to use some skills you may have learned in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), such as behavioral action and exposure therapy. (1) The act of gardening may lift your mood, give you a sense of pride and accomplishment, and help you feel relaxed. If it makes you feel good,  you may be motivated to continue doing it, so you can influence your emotions. And exposure therapy may be useful if you struggle with certain phobias related to disordered eating, such as contamination phobias, fears of certain food groups, and more.

Examples of horticultural therapeutic activities

Every horticultural therapist may use a different treatment program for different recovering individuals. However, common horticultural therapeutic activities include: (3)

  • Appreciation of nature
  • Taking care of at least one type of plant
  • Guided exploration of a plant, using every sense
  • Cultivating awareness 
  • Mixing soil
  • Learning how to use fertilizer
  • Watering plants
  • Learning the practical uses of various plants
  • Practicing plant transplantation
  • Mindful eating and tasting fruits
  • Designing a pot garden or garden plot
  • Experience the smells of various herbs
  • Vegetable harvesting and cooking
  • Pressing flowers

Of course, horticultural therapy is not limited to the above activities, and what works for you may not be particularly helpful for someone else. Just as eating disorder treatment plans are tailored to meet your needs, horticultural therapy also meets you where you are at.

Benefits of horticultural therapy

Horticultural therapy has many benefits for those in eating disorder recovery, such as: (1,2,3)

  • Developing  a healthy relationship to the food you grow
  • Cultivating community
  • Improving self-worth and self-esteem
  • Improving cognitive abilities and memory
  • Enhancing language skills and socialization
  • Improving task initiation, maintenance, and completion (the ability to begin new tasks, stay motivated, and persevere to complete them)
  • Increasing mental well-being
  • Promoting a sense of accomplishment and purpose
  • Reducing stress and anxiety
  • Fostering patience and peacefulness
  • Appreciating the resilience of plants and miracle of life
  • Improving focus 

Additionally, horticultural therapy has proven beneficial for people with other mental disorders as well, such as depression and schizophrenia. (3) Since eating disorders often co-occur with other psychiatric conditions, horticultural therapy may offer relief from symptoms of both disorders.

Therapeutic gardens

Horticultural therapy takes place in therapeutic gardens, which are plant-dominated areas intentionally designed for people to interact with nature and experience healing. These interactions can be both active and passive, depending on the individual’s needs and treatment plan. (4)

Therapeutic gardens differ from standard gardens in that they are an intentional space for horticultural therapy to take place. Features may include sensory-oriented plants focused on scent, texture, and color, raised containers and planting beds, and accessible paths and entrances. (4)

Several types of therapeutic gardens exist, such as: (4)

  • Rehabilitation gardens
  • Restorative gardens
  • Enabling gardens
  • Healing gardens

Horticultural therapists and landscapers often collaborate to create therapeutic gardens that are accessible to people of all different abilities, skill levels, and more. However, as important as the environment is to healing, without a knowledgeable therapist who specializes in horticultural therapy, the therapeutic garden will likely not suffice. (4)

The link between gardening and mindful eating

Mindful eating involves cultivating awareness of what we are eating, smelling, and tasting, as well as awareness of how we feel while we consume food and paying attention to the pleasure of eating. Practicing mindful eating means being present during every meal and savoring our food.

A key component of mindful eating is expressing gratitude for the way in which our food energizes and nourishes our body. And that’s not all—as we practice awareness and being present during our meals, we can also show our gratitude for all the work that went into growing our food, from seed to table. And if we are the ones growing our food in our garden, day in and day out, we are able to acknowledge and appreciate our role in our own nourishment. This is how we can begin to heal our relationship with food and genuinely enjoy our meals.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Smith, B.E.R. (2020). Implementing Horticultural Therapy in Eating Disorder Recovery. National Eating Disorders Association.
  2. American Horticultural Therapy Association. (n.d.). Horticultural Therapy.
  3. Siu, A., Kam, M., & Mok, I. (2020). Horticultural Therapy Program for People with Mental Illness: A Mixed-Method Evaluation. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(3), 711. 
  4. American Horticultural Therapy Association. (n.d.). About Therapeutic Gardens.

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