The Intuitive Eating Model at Oliver-Pyatt Centers

Mary Dye_MPH RD CEDRD LDN_Director of Nutrition Services

Oliver-Pyatt Centers Director of Nutrition Services Mary Dye, MPH, RD, CDN, LD/N shares about the Intuitive Eating Model in this week’s blog post. Mary gives insight into how OPC supports clients to lay a foundation of intuitive eating so that they are able to improve their relationship with food on their recovery journey. 

Sometimes, when eating disorder professionals hear of intuitive eating, they aren’t sure how this method can be incorporated into treatment at higher levels of care. The concept of listening to the body’s internal cues sounds like an ideal long-term goal for a person who has imposed strict and maybe even aggressive dietary guidelines on themselves. However, the reality for an individual living with an eating disorder, requires nutritional structure to ensure adequate nourishment and re-engagement of cues while working through all aspects of treatment. Oliver-Pyatt Centers’ nutrition programming, often referred to as an Intuitive Eating model, utilizes individualized, structured meal plans while assisting clients in increasing their awareness, understanding and ability to appropriately respond to innate cues with increasing autonomy over time. Throughout treatment, mindful eating practices and participation in thoughtfully planned, supported food exposures serve as the basis of each client’s journey toward the goal of full recovery, freedom and flexibility with food.

An individual with an eating disorder typically has little to no awareness, connection or ability to appropriately respond to their bodily cues. A key characteristic of the eating disorder is disassociation- a person comes to disregard their body’s hunger and fullness cues for so long that they forget what it feels like to be comfortably hungry for a meal and what it feels like to be satiated after eating. Our work is to reorient our clients with their own body’s language. As they work towards making peace with food, movement, and their bodies, we continually draw their attention back to their own experience- we ask them over and over again to describe what is happening in their body in the present moment. We do this first by having them assess their hunger and fullness on a scale of 0-10; zero being empty, and ten being painfully full. We also ask them to explore how these cues equate to emotional hunger and fullness. On empty, a person is experiencing cognitive deterioration or numbness, while when painfully full, the sensation is profound and distracting. During the initial phases of nutritional restoration, a client’s hunger and fullness cues are all over the scale and this can be confusing and quite anxiety provoking for the individual. However, as the body is restored to health and becomes accustomed to the routine of the meal plan laid out by the nutritional team, these cues start to fall in a less extreme and more comfortable range where hunger and fullness are experienced more gently and predictably. By noticing hunger and fullness in more comfortable, and less distressing ranges of sensation, clients learn to better recognize their body’s physical needs and address them before they become unmanageable.

Another key aspect of nutritional philosophy at Oliver-Pyatt Centers is the way we incorporate the Principles of Exposure Response Prevention Therapy to guide our client’s supported interactions with food. Because of our intimate staff to client ratio, we are able to provide a high volume of exposure experiences in a controlled and safe setting. We remind clients that exposures must be repeated and while there is a peak in shame, anxiety, and disassociation, we find that overtime maladaptive responses decrease. To support our clients through daily exposures, meals are reported in a safe setting just prior to exposure experience and intentions for that specific meal are set in a focused and supported environment. These built in, habitual exposures are paired with individualized challenges to address specific eating disorder behaviors and beliefs. We work with clients to quell their anxieties in the moment to work through challenges early on as they continue towards the goal of mindful connection to their experience in the moment.

Throughout each client’s treatment stay, we work to lay a foundation of mindful, and eventually intuitive eating, with the goal of reconnecting mind and body. We believe that after following treatment recommendations and continuing to work toward full recovery, our clients are capable of making peace with food through intuitive eating.

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