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Meal Plans Prevent Neural Rewiring In Eating Disorder Recovery

In traditional treatment for eating disorders, meal plans are the ‘prescription’ every patient who walks through the door is given.  They are the basis that treatment has been built upon for years.  Wherever you live in the world and whether it is eating disorder treatment as an inpatient, out-patient, day patient or something in-between, meal plans are used to ‘guide the recovery’.

I can understand the rationale behind meals plans – they encourage regular eating, provide a framework when people are stuck and might help a person feel ‘safe’ enough to start eating a few more morsels of food than they were previously.

When a person is at the very start of recovery and too malnourished to find sufficient flexibility in their thoughts to know where to begin in making any changes without some guidance, then meal plans (perhaps) have a short term place.

Beyond this though, my argument is that meal plans are not only unhelpful but actually exacerbate disordered thinking, prevent neural rewiring and hinder full recovery.

Meal plans also remove a key element in learning to eat again… that of listening to the body.  A generic meal plan can never know what a unique body needs at any given time and perhaps more so when coming from a malnourished state.

Despite this, over my years in and out of treatment, I was provided with a range of meal plans to follow.  They were all different but essentially all the same.  

These plans ‘prescribed’ to me what to eat, when to eat it and I was given reassurances of what would happen to my weight if I did just as I was told.

Now, eating disorders actually learn to love meal plans.  

An eating disorder provides black and white, rigid thinking.  Meal plans are black and white and rigid.  So, even though I might be brave enough to start eating a bit more using a meal plan, it still feels ‘safe’ because it is still a rigid set of rules and follows a routine.  

The meal plan also offers reassurances that it will stop us ‘eating too much’ because the amount prescribed on the plan ‘should be sufficient’ and I still hear that people are discouraged to eat more than their plan by professionals, even if hungry to do so.

Meal plans replace one form of restriction and rigid eating rules that we had generated from the eating disorder, with another form of (frequently) restrictive and rigid eating rules, but no one questions this because it is ‘treatment’.

Meal plans keep us stuck, they don’t allow flexibility and people ‘in recovery’ from eating disorders cling to these messed up plans as if they are clinging to a life-line.

I frequently see and hear from people in eating disorder recovery who have gained weight using a meal plan but have spent years in quasi-recovery because they have been eating to a set plan they were given by professionals and don’t know how to eat if they are not following a plan that dictates what breakfast, lunch and dinner will be, how many snacks to eat and just how many grams of each food they should be eating.

It is these rigid and disordered plans that stop people reaching their full recovery potential and living life with freedom.  

If you are always eating to a plan, what happens when someone asks you to lunch or dinner or suggests Sunday brunch out which is outside ‘usual meal times’??   I will tell you what happens – high anxiety, turning down invitations and staying isolated and miserable, despite apparently being ‘recovered’.

When you have spent years eating to a meal plan, the meal plan is the brain’s auto-pilot, habitual and safe way of managing food.  But following a meal plan for years, despite leading to maybe eating more and gaining some weight, has not allowed any mental rewiring to learn how to eat in a way that will lead to ultimate FULL recovery and mental release.

Recovery is about recovering our mental state and not just weight… weight gain alone is a long way from recovery.

So why don’t meal plans lead to neural rewiring?

The base line answer to this is that neural rewiring ultimately requires problem solving, which we have to do ourselves.

Being told what to eat and when requires no higher brain action.  

There is no conscious effort needed for it.  We become robotic with this part of our life, but then what happens when life happens?  What happens when we need flexibility?  

As we have never learnt how to problem solve eating flexibly, only ever ignored our body signals when it came to hunger and eaten in a mechanical way, when something goes wrong, we cannot cope and we break down.

During this time of Covid-19, I have seen examples of this on social media from people ‘recovered’ who are highly anxious because they cannot access their ‘safe foods’ that they have to have for their meal plan.  How is this recovery I asked myself?

This is not full recovery as I see it and I know every person has the potential to achieve more than this.  It sounds mean but my response to someone not having access to their ‘safe foods’ is that this is actually a great thing because now they can finally problem solve what to do instead of eating on autopilot and start to understand flexibility is possible through practising it!

To fully recover and neurally rewire, we need to ditch any meal plans and just start eating – anytime, anywhere, anything – in as messy a way as we want and ideally in great quantities!  Yes it is terrifying but it CAN be simple and it is a release.

When we do, the body will also learn to trust us and let us know what it wants food wise and will guide us to eat enough for it to fully heal.

To relearn how to eat again in eating disorder recovery… without rules set by an eating disorder or by a meal plan and like a ‘normal’ human being again ultimately has to come from within.

Changing rigid eating habits is incredibly difficult and mentally exhausting.   Several times a day, it is necessary to stop the brain instantly following automatic thought patterns and behaviours regarding eating and to consciously decide to go against what feels right and safe and to do things differently…. to eat more, eat at different times, eat ‘fear foods’, not compensate for eating through movement, etc.

To achieve a full recovery and be free of food rules it has to come from your inner values, desires and motivation… It has to come from gut instincts and ultimately it has to come from your own problem solving.

Sure, I could tell you how I started to eat more and not eat to a meal plan in my recovery but doing what I did won’t allow your brain to work out what you need to do for your recovery.

We all have to learn how to grow beyond an eating disorder and far beyond a meal plan in recovery.  We have to build our own resilience to nourish ourselves, eat freely and abundantly, no matter what life is demanding of us at the same time!

In an earlier post, I provided a framework of approaches that can be used to help rewire a brain and these methods will help when applied to breaking free from the meal plan mentality.

Becoming autonomous in recovery will ultimately allow you to rewire – owning your recovery, taking responsibility no matter the disordered thoughts or what is happening externally.  But at the same time also seeking and using external support as the path to recovery through rewiring is long and messy!

In recovery, we have to learn to identify emotions and automatic thoughts or behaviour patterns that arise in the moment but practice not immediately responding to them in old ways.  Instead, notice them, stop, breathe and allow your pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that allows rational thought and impulse regulation) to wake up and instigate a new, non-disordered response.

Eating disorders and meal plans give us a false sense of security in the moment that we are living with them… recovery means shaking off this false allure of safety and pushing our comfort zones to learn how to eat without rules or regulations!

And how do YOU do that?  Do your own problem solving when it comes to how you approach eating without restriction or a meal plan in your recovery because that is where neural rewiring will really happen…. but stop delaying and do it today!

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