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Learn more about the results we get at Within

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Meal planning in anorexia nervosa recovery

Treatment for anorexia nervosa (AN) is often multi-faceted, involving a combination of care techniques that help individuals achieve weight restoration, change distorted thinking patterns around their weight and body image, and address any co-occurring health issues connected to the eating disorder.

But one of the most important components for long-term eating disorder recovery are meal plans.

These blueprints can help ensure someone in recovery from AN or other eating disorders is meeting their daily nutritional intake and energy intake, but in ways that feel intuitive or even create a sense of joy around food.

It can be difficult to know where to start when planning meals in anorexia nervosa recovery, but there are some tips that can make the process easier.

Last updated on 
June 20, 2023
June 20, 2023
Person meal planning
In this article

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
In the early stages of anorexia recovery, it is critical to follow a meal plan that allows for safe refeeding, as reintroducing too much substance back in the diet too quickly can lead to dangerous health impacts.9

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

While in treatment, it is important to work with a registered dietitian or nutrition professional for an appropriate anorexia nervosa recovery meal plan. This expert can help you to create a suitable meal plan that includes foods that you like. Your dietician and medical team will monitor your progress and make adjustments to your eating plan as needed.

At Within, we handpick a care team for you, including a registered dietitian and other treatment professionals. Learn more about our remote treatment program by calling us today.

(866) 293-0041

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.

Finding help for anorexia nervosa recovery

Creating an individualized meal plan from scratch can be difficult, and is best left up to professionals. At Within, we offer meal plans for all of our clients, no matter where they are along their recovery journey.

We can help you develop an eating plan that meets your unique needs, while also providing medical and psychological services to support you along the way. And our caring, knowledgeable treatment team will walk alongside you while you do the hard work of recovering.

Overcoming AN may seem difficult, but it's not impossible—and it's never too late to start.

Call us today

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.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Hage, T. W., Rø, Ø. & Moen, A. (2015). “Time’s up” – staff’s management of mealtimes on inpatient eating disorder units. Journal of Eating Disorders 3, 13.
  2. Haas, V., Kohn, M., Korner, T., Cuntz, U., Garber, A. K., Le Grange, D., Voderholzer, U., & Correll, C. U. (2021). Practice-based evidence and clinical guidance to support accelerated re-nutrition of patients with anorexia nervosa. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 60(5), 555-561.
  3. Bargiacchi, A., Clarke, J., Paulsen, A., & Leger, J. (2019). Refeeding in anorexia nervosa. European Journal of Pediatrics, 178, 413-422.
  4. Garber, A. K., Sawyer, S. M., Golden, N. H., Guarda, A. S., Katzman, D. K., Kohn, M. R., Le Grange, D., Madden, S., Whitelaw, M., & Redgrave, G. W. (2016). A systematic review of approaches to refeeding in patients with anorexia nervosa. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49(3), 293–310.
  5. Roberton, M. Nutrition in recovery from anorexia nervosa. The Victorian Centre for Excellence in Eating Disorders. Accessed June 2023.
  6. Barbosa, M. R., de Oliveira Penaforte, F. R., & de Sousa Silva, A. F. (2020). Mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in the approach to obesity and eating disorders. SMAD, Rev Eletrônica Saúde Mental Álcool Drog, 16(3), 118-135.
  7. Parkman, H. P., Yates, K. P., Hasler, W. L., Nguyan, L., Pasricha, P. J., Snape, W. J., Farrugia, G., Calles, J., Koch, K. L., Abell, T. L., McCallum, R. W., Petito, D., Parrish, C. R., Duffy, F., Lee, L., Unalp-Arida, A., Tonascia, J., Hamilton, F., & NIDDK Gastroparesis Clinical Research Consortium (2011). Dietary intake and nutritional deficiencies in patients with diabetic or idiopathic gastroparesis. Gastroenterology, 141(2), 486–498.
  8. Marzola, E., Nasser, J., Hashim, S., Shih, P., Kaye, W. (2013). Nutritional rehabilitation in anorexia nervosa: review of the literature and implications for treatment. BMC Psychiatry, 13(290).
  9. Mehanna, H. M., Moledina, J., & Travis, J. (2008). Refeeding syndrome: what it is, and how to prevent and treat it. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 336(7659), 1495–1498.

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