The Pathway to Eating Disorder Recovery

By Tracy Williams

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million Americans of all ages and genders experience an eating disorder. People with disabilities experience unique stressors that may put them at increased risk of developing an eating disorder. According to the National Association of Eating Disorders, diagnosed eating disorders are estimated to affect around 1%-2% of the population depending on the type of eating disorder. Disordered eating in its many forms is much more common.

Disordered eating can look like strict calorie counting or rules around food, restrictive eating, compulsive overeating or other forms of disordered eating. It may not rise to the diagnosis of a specific eating disorder but is, nevertheless, problematic. Further research needs to be expanded to boost the understanding of the connection between eating disorders, and physical or intellectual disability.

Eating Disorders


The Center for Disability Rights says that ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that diminish and separate people with physical, intellectual or psychiatric disabilities from typical society and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be "fixed." Ableism is intertwined in our culture; due to misunderstandings about what disability does or does not mean, how non-disabled people learn to treat people with disabilities and how we are often not included at the community table in key decisions that affect the disability community.

The media continues to present and glorify body sizes and shapes skewed to the strong, slender build. People with physical disabilities may already have poor body image because they may have body dissatisfaction, connected to both body appearance and body function. Some people with physical disabilities may experience more body dissatisfaction if some individuals have severe disabilities versus mild or moderate conditions depending on how much assistance from a personal care assistant or family caregiver is needed on a daily basis. Most people with disabilities appreciate as much independence as they can achieve within their personal situation.

People with intellectual disabilities may be at higher risk for an eating disorder because they may be more likely to be highly selective about food textures, or have issues chewing, sucking liquids and swallowing. Eating disorder recovery programs are often more expensive for people living with disabilities.

Disordered eating

The causes of eating disorders and disordered eating are complicated and complex. Whitney Lisenmeyer, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and an assistant professor of nutrition and DPD director at Saint Louis University tells her clients that both nature and nurture can prompt people to develop an eating disorder. She says individuals with diagnosed eating disorders tend to have a high degree of perfectionism, along with a self-critical nature. People who have disabilities may experience chronically low self-esteem, possibly related to ableism, along with a personal history of extreme dieting.

Disordered eating

How can family and friends help in recovery of an eating disorder?

Many registered dietitians and health professionals who work with clients who have an eating disorder realize that family and friends may find it challenging to witness and help loved ones struggling to overcome it. The best thing to do is for family to provide unconditional emotional support without judgement. Many treatment programs include family therapy as an integral part of care. Support groups for the loved ones are often available.

Many people who experience eating disorders need to know they have support of their loved ones before they get enough courage to go into a treatment program. Family and friends need their own level of courage to voice their own concerns. Many people who experience eating disorders are reluctant to ask for help because they have such low self-esteem; they simply do not feel like they deserve any help.

Eating disorders only get worse without treatment, and the physical and emotional damage can be severe. Eating disorders can cause people to be malnourished, it can alter how they think about their bodies, the world around them, even what is considered the proper motivations of others trying to help.

Eating disorders often fill an important role in the person's life, usually a way to cope with unpleasant emotions. It is best for loved ones to choose a time of when individuals are emotionally calm and can talk in private, without distractions or constraints. Loved ones should try to avoid lecturing or criticizing so that the person is less likely to become defensive. People who have experienced eating disorders need to have a personal reason to change.

Mindful and Intuitive Eating

Many dietitians realize that mindful eating and intuitive eating can be complicated because it brings a heightened awareness to food and an individual's body when they experience an eating disorder. Once someone has healed from an eating disorder, mindful eating is a technique that helps people gain control over their eating habits. It has also been shown to stimulate weight maintenance, lessen binge eating and help people feel better. Mindful eating is about using mindfulness to gain a state of full attention to personal experiences, cravings and physical cues when eating.

Mindful eating focuses on eating slowly and without distraction. It takes 20 minutes for the fullness message to reach the human brain. People need to become more committed to listening to their personal hunger cues. When practicing mindful eating, people should be able to become more comfortable in differentiating between true hunger and boredom. One of the other goals of mindful eating focuses on people learning to lessen their guilt and anxiety related to food, because mindful eating is meant to focus on all food fitting in a healthy lifestyle, especially in moderation.

Intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework, which connects bias, emotion and balanced thought about food. Many people recovering from eating disorders get angry about diets because they feel discouraged. They feel like a failure every time the diets stop working and cause some people to gain the weight back. Each person should focus on keeping their own body fed with the proper number of calories to accomplish life goals. For some, calorie restriction may cause a struggle with the primal drive to overeat.

When building a healthy relationship with food, skip the lists of good and bad foods, and stop judging other people for their food choices. Some individuals who are recovering from eating disorders understand that food restrictions can trigger loss of control, which may cause emotional eating. Foods will not fix feelings. Find ways to deal with the source of the emotions.

Eating disorder recovery can be complicated. The most crucial part of an eating disorder recovery is to change your relationship with food and limit the influence of diet culture. It is beneficial to have unconditional support for your friends and family as well. The most important part is to have unconditional support from your healthcare team to get started on the pathway of recovery.


About the Author:

Tracy Williams has her degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Dominican University. She enjoys partnering with disability organizations and conventions for speaking engagements on nutrition. She enjoys partnering with suburban Chicago park districts, rotary clubs, libraries, schools and some non-profit organizations. She enjoys doing some blogging for other registered dietitians as well. She is beginning her freelance writing journey with Push Living. You can connect with her at her website Please feel free to contact her if you have any nutrition questions. She loves to debunk any basic nutrition myths.

Tracy Williams Bio Photo

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