The Role of the Dietitian in Eating Disorder Treatment

Eating disorders are complex illnesses with both psychological and physical aspects that require treatment. For this reason, over the past few decades, it has become more common for the treatment of people with eating disorders to be managed by multi-disciplinary teams which can deliver the necessary medical, psychological and nutritional help. As society’s foremost expert on nutrition, the dietitian has an important role on the treatment team for a person suffering from an eating disorder, and more opportunities are opening up for dietitians to develop as experts in this role.

Julie Deane-Williams, a registered dietitian and ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa) spokesperson who has a special interest in treating people with eating disorders, points out that in some cases, the dietitian may also be the first port of call for help.

“Even though there are high levels of denial associated with disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the dietitian is often the health care professional on call, especially when it comes to a person struggling with emotional/comfort eating or binge eating disorder. Typically, in the first session, a sufferer, usually female, confides that she is desperate to lose weight; reveals disgust at her body, even if she is within a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index) and feels shame that she has been unable to stick to a diet. The dietitian soon discovers that the emotional eater has tried many different diets. Patients commonly are keenly aware of the energy content of different foods but that doesn’t mean that they know much about nutrition. Often the patient hopes that the dietitian can provide a ‘miracle’ diet that is finally going to help her lose weight and keep it off.”

In combination, these are the warning signs for the dietitian who can recognise the symptoms of disordered eating. It is important that the dietitian doesn’t play into the patient’s scenario but instead helps them to acknowledge disordered eating and address it appropriately.

Deane-Williams makes it clear that the dietitian who works with people with eating disorders needs to acquire particular expertise and skills.

“It is important for the dietitian to understand how the different eating disorders develop and are maintained by patients, as well as to have sound knowledge of the medical, psychological and physiological aspects of the range of eating disorders. In order to play their role effectively on a multi-disciplinary team, they also need to have a general understanding of the mental health issues as well as the various psychological interventions and their applications. It would be an advantage to the dietitian to have expert communication, counselling and behaviour change skills. This is a relatively new role for dietitians, and the complexity of eating disorders demands education and training that goes beyond the minimum required to simply qualify as a registered dietitian.”

The dietitian who works with people with eating disorders plays an important role in the assessment, treatment, monitoring, support and education of the patient. As advocates of evidenced-based science, they serve as important resources of nutrition knowledge for the patient, the patient’s family and the other health care professionals on the treatment team. They need to be skilled at determining a patient’s nutritional status, eating patterns and behaviour, food rules and beliefs. It is the dietitian who takes into account the patient’s meal planning, food shopping and cooking skills. The dietitian works closely with other team members to understand how the patient’s underlying psychological and emotional issues impacts on their eating behaviours, as well as their motivation and capacity for behaviour change. The dietitian will work collaboratively with the patient to develop the nutrition aspect of the treatment plan, and to support the patient and the rest of the team throughout its implementation.

In the light of recent research in the UK that has attributed more deaths to eating disorders than any other psychiatric disease, Deane-Williams urges people with unhealthy relationships with food to seek help sooner rather than later.

“Using food, or the lack of it, to cope with distressing emotions and situations is a maladaptive way of managing life,” she says. “All eating disorders are addictions, and it is the nature of an addiction to further and further alienate a person from their own inner truth. Addictions also usually drastically stunt emotional growth. Once a person accepts that they have an eating disorder, and they seek good medical help, the healing journey is one that is difficult yet immensely rewarding. Not only can they recover, but they find out who they really are – bright and exceptionally intuitive people who had developed a coping mechanism to keep their ‘heads above water’ during extremely challenging times in their lives. Once they develop healthy ways of managing difficult emotions, they can go on to thrive, and create healthy and very happy lives.“

If you think you or a loved one might be struggling with an eating disorder, consider visiting a registered dietitian for expert guidance and advice. If you are looking for a dietitian in your area, please visit www.adsa.org.za

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