Components of an anorexia meal plan
A successful individualized meal plan should take several focuses into account, including:
- Meeting appropriate daily caloric intake needs
- Providing adequate nutrition, incorporating all major food groups and micronutrients
- Adding certain foods to challenge specific fears
- Reducing disordered eating behaviors through a regular eating schedule
Still, there are no set rules or regulations when it comes to the amount of calories or types of foods someone should be incorporating into their meal plans. That's why it's important to consult a registered dietitian nutritionist when developing the best meal plan for you.
Nutrition and anorexia nervosa recovery
Each patient’s meal plan will differ based upon their unique needs and preferences, but generally, there are some suggestions that can help ensure you obtain the nutrition you need to function your best.
Experts recommend that patients in recovery from AN consume foods that provide high amounts of protein and essential amino acids. It is also important to consume foods that contain fats, as they provide lipids that are essential for brain functioning. Carbohydrates are also an important part of an adequate meal plan.8
Recommendations vary by person and by case, but a typical breakdown of these components looks like:4
- 25-35% calories from fat
- 15-20% calories from protein
- 50-60% calories from carbohydrates
Beyond these general recommendations, patients in anorexia nervosa recovery typically don’t need special foods. Everyday foods that most families eat can be incorporated into the diet to support healing, rebuild tissue, and correct nutritional deficiencies.5
Anorexia recovery and caloric intake
For some people, a healthy meal plan may contain a high amount of calories, even compared to someone not in AN recovery. Studies have linked high-caloric refeeding (HCR) to shortened hospital stays among those in the early stages of AN recovery.2
While consuming a high amount of calories can seem intimidating to a person struggling with AN, the truth is that larger meal plans in the early stages of anorexia nervosa recovery is linked to better health outcomes over the long-term.3
Still, it's important to have patience with yourself and your body as you work through these changes.
Many people in recovery from AN experience slowed digestion (gastroparesis) and GI distress during the recovery process, especially at the beginning. Foods that are lower in fiber, including nutritional supplement drinks, can be a helpful strategy to increase caloric intake while minimizing food volume, which reduces digestive discomfort.7
Developing an eating plan
Each person’s healthy anorexia recovery meal plan will vary based on individual needs, other medical conditions or allergies, and culturally appropriate foods.
Experts recommend that patients in recovery consume three meals and three snacks per day, though some people might find it easier to have fewer, larger meals, or more, smaller meals.4
Meal plan benefits
Structured meal plans are also often part of inpatient or residential treatment programs. This not only helps ensure that patients are eating in general, but helps them break away from pre-established patterns or eating rituals which may have reinforced their eating disorder behaviors.1
An eating plan also helps take away the stress of thinking about food so much, i.e. deciding what to eat, and when, and how to prepare it or where to buy it from. Rather, you can simply follow the routine and trust that it was developed with health and recovery in mind.
Once becoming accustomed to the meal plan and allowing the mind and body some time to heal and reprogram, some people may eventually be able to move on to more intuitive eating, making more of their own food choices while maintaining their recovery progress.
Tips for maintaining a meal planning
It can be challenging to increase your food intake during recovery, but support from friends, family, peers, and treatment professionals can help you develop a meal plan and consistently follow it.
If you’re struggling to develop a healthier mindset around eating, the following tips can help you with meal planning:
- Rather than being concerned about weight, focus on nourishing your body with foods that meet your nutritional needs.
- Pair foods that are feared with foods that feel safer, and talk to your providers about receiving support during exposures to new or scary foods.
- Remember that if your meal plan feels impossible at first, it will get easier over time as you physically and mentally adjust to eating regularly.
- Check in regularly with your goals for recovery to help provide motivation during difficult stages in the process.
And remember: Anorexia nervosa is a mental health issue above all else. Even if you manage to gain weight, it can still be a mental struggle to adjust to the change. Meet yourself with compassion, and be assured that you're not only doing your best, but doing what's best for you and your body.