Here’s why it’s okay to put nutrition on the back burner during eating disorder recovery, according to an expert

March is National Nutrition Month, but we hardly need a designated month to be reminded about what we’re eating. In fact, we receive an onslaught of messages about “nutrition” or “dieting” every single day, all year long — from advertisements about the latest magic weight loss aid, to our friends trying out a trendy new diet, to the slew of #cleaneating posts we see on social media each day. Diet culture finds myriad ways to weave itself into our brains without us even realizing it’s happening.

But what about when you’re in recovery from an eating disorder, working on finding a safe and healthy place for food in your life?

Should those in recovery be focusing especially on nutrition, finding ways to eat in a balanced, “healthy” way? We spoke with Erica Leon, a dietitian and nutritionist, to get some answers.

Leon is a certified eating disorders dietitian and intuitive eating specialist, frequently working with patients recovering from eating disorders. And though she knows how important nutrition is for our overall health and well-being, she also knows that a gentle approach is what will help a person find peace with food for the rest of their lives.

Leon works with patients who have struggled with a wide range of disordered eating habits, giving each client a personalized approach. Because recovery can take months or years, she helps patients find peace with food and their bodies by introducing a variety of foods. And yes, that even means cookies, cake, and chips.

She says, “In general, when someone has been struggling with an eating disorder, (whether restrictive, binge-eating, or any other combination of disordered eating), their nutritional status has likely been negatively impacted.”

Leon works with patients to create a well-rounded food plan, but says that it is “also important to eventually help a person feel comfortable eating foods they have ‘feared’ for whatever reason — including highly palatable snacks and desserts.”

It makes sense that if you’re recovering from an eating disorder, you might fear traditionally high-calorie or high-fat foods, but the process of recovery involves making peace with all food — from carrots to cake.

And despite what your Instagram feed might show you, eating “healthfully” doesn’t merely involve a smoothie bowl or leafy salad, but instead including a wide variety of foods in your diet.

Leon explains that “healthy eating” isn’t just about foods with high nutritional value, despite what fitspo experts on social media will have you believe. She says if that were true, “our food intake would be rather boring. I believe that the pleasure that comes from eating satisfying meals and tasty snacks is equally important.”

In fact, when you’re so focused on eating only “healthy” foods, you can quickly veer into disordered eating territory, a term called orthorexia. Instead, Leon works with patients on “gentle nutrition,” which takes the judgment out of eating. Rather than labeling certain foods “good” (those carrots) or “bad” (that cake), you eat intuitively, choosing foods based on how they make you feel and what your body is craving at that moment.

“Gentle nutrition means we take matters of food preference, as well as nutrition, into account when we choose what feels ‘just right’ for our mind and body,” she says. And yes, there will be some days where our bodies want a steak or a cheeseburger, and others where we’re craving more veggies. She admits, “This might sound a little funny…food preference is a part of nutrition?”

Yes, she says enthusiastically. "Satisfaction is a cornerstone of gentle nutrition, and it must be respected if we are to really embrace the gentle nutrition model."

Leon practices the Intuitive Eating method, a philosophy that eliminates restrictive diets and strict rules around food, instead eating based on your body’s natural hunger signals — a somewhat revolutionary idea in a world revolving around weight loss pills, fad diets, and unrealistic beauty and health standards.

She says it’s a gentle approach that “means saying ‘goodbye’ to strict diets, as they promote negative self-judgments, shaming, and ‘shoulds’ around food intake and body size.

“With intuitive eating, we take a more compassionate stance and recognize that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. We work on self-care behaviors, including moving our bodies in a pleasurable way, finding alternatives to comfort ourselves without using food, and putting an end to diets.”

When you realize that you can eat anything you want, you may fear trigger foods that will set you back into disordered eating habits. But Leon says this is all part of the recovery process, adding that it’s common to choose “fun foods” as you begin the “un-dieting” process. She says,

"I find that my clients will eventually come back to balanced plates (meals with a combination of proteins, fruits and veggies, dairy, fats, and grains), and eat a variety of foods from all the different food groups because they learn it makes them feel good. However, this is a process and when we try to focus on nutrition too soon, we can turn intuitive eating into yet another 'diet' — a 'hunger-fullness' diet. So we don’t want to jeopardize our intuitive eating journey by relying solely on what our brain thinks we 'should' eat."

In time, you’ll develop a healthy relationship with food and your body, and that has nothing to do with the latest fitspo trends on social media.

Leon says, “A healthy relationship with food feels good both physically and emotionally. It means you eat a wide variety of foods in a balanced way, can eat flexibly in any situation, and don’t view food as either good or bad. Food is neutral — it is fuel and it is also pleasurable.”

"It means you get to enjoy going out to dinner with friends or family without worrying about what’s on the menu. It means you get to share a cookie with your child, because you’re not thinking about its calorie content. It means you free up space in your heart and your mind for so many other pursuits beyond the pursuit of weight loss."

If you’re currently struggling with disordered eating, Leon recommends reaching out to a licensed counselor who specializes in eating disorders, as well as a dietitian who works with those recovering from an eating disorder.

“It can truly take a village to help someone recover from an eating disorder,” she says, but recovery is possible with the support of those around you.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237 or talk to a trusted health professional.