I blogged yesterday about Part One of Linda Hill's talk on The Noisy Brain , and, as I promised, here is Part Two of her talk from the 2010 International Conference on Eating Disorders . In the second half of her talk, Dr. Hill talked about the need for structure in AN recovery, specifically with respect to meal planning.
In the world of eating disorder recovery, Intuitive Eating is pretty much the holy grail of recovery. It's not a bad ideal, but eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're full can really only work effectively if your hunger and fullness cues are fully operational. In people with eating disorders, especially in early recovery, this really isn't true. At my last residential treatment center, we were taught Intuitive Eating (which wasn't a bad thing), but then we were also expected to be able to put this into action even as we were still in the beginning phases of normalizing eating patterns. Some people found this effective; I didn't. I failed at it miserably, and I had always blamed myself. Perhaps I didn't want recovery enough. Or maybe I wasn't good enough at fighting the ED voice.
You can imagine what a relief it was for me to learn that although the concept of Intuitive Eating is very useful, I can't rely totally on hunger and fullness cues to nourish myself. I definitely couldn't early in my recovery, and I still can't quite totally rely on them now. Instead, I need more structure to help me eat properly, and it's not a matter of personal failure but more of a matter of the very issue that made me so vulnerable to anorexia.
Dr. Hill talked about the need for structure in meal planning as it relates to difficulties in decision-making in people with eating disorders. Here's a segment of what she said (I inserted the links to help define some of the more technical terms) Automatic emotional reactions don't seem to fire well because the insula is blunted. People with anorexia doesn't appear to have a free-flow ability [to move between emotional aspects of decision-making and evaluating long-term consequences]. Their planning ability seems to be firing overly well.
The AN/BN brain is impaired in identifying the emotional significance of stimuli, but it has an increased ability concerned with planning and executing tasks. There is an emotional blindness to decisions. If there is little or no internal regulation to help the person in decision making, it's easier not to decide. I need few to no options to help me in those decisions. [For people in recovery from anorexia], we need to increase structure and limit options for decisions. To compensate for inability to know what to do, the anorexic turns outward to social cues for rules and answers and to experience reward. In EDs, we begin with a meal plan, and then dose food level to match energy level. We take choice out of it.
So instead of saying "What kind of grain do you want with dinner?" it's more useful to ask "Did you want rice or pasta?" The first option is so open-ended and provokes so much anxiety that it's simply easier to skip that carbohydrate. The number of decisions I have to make when figuring out what to eat can be so overwhelming that I have to find ways to make it easier for myself. In my meal planning post, I wrote about how I have managed to work enough variability into my meal plan while simultaneously keeping the number of choices from getting overwhelming. My solution is the mix-n-match method (or what my dietitian jokingly refers to as the Deal-a-Meal) that keeps me from getting in an anorexic rut, fulfills my necessary exchanges, and allows for enough flexibility that I can go to a restaurant.
The balancing act can be rather precarious, and I think the eventual goal is to move off of a formal meal plan and into a more Intuitive Eating pattern. But the idea is that we use meal planning to shore up those areas in which we might have difficulties and let our strengths speak for themselves.