Lifestyle Changes to Manage Eating Disorders

Recovery from an eating disorder can take anywhere from several months to years. Certain lifestyle changes can help you during and after your recovery.

These may include the following:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and body image
  • Maintain a rational approach to dieting, food, and exercise
  • Know and avoid triggers
  • Receive treatment, as necessary
  • Work on building a meaningful, fulfilling, and satisfying life
  • Develop effective coping skills
  • Take medicines as prescribed

Maintain a Healthy Weight and Body Image

Work on developing and maintaining a healthy and realistic body image and weight. During the times when you feel fat, ask yourself if your life would really be much different if you were underweight. Would you automatically be more successful, popular, and loved? Realize that the things you want to achieve in life have little to do with being underweight and more to do with setting and achieving realistic goals. Remember that being thin does not equal being happy.

Maintain a Rational Approach to Dieting, Food, and Exercise

Do not diet, even if you need to lose weight. Rather, you need a meal plan that gives you adequate nutrition for health and normal growth. You can work toward a healthy weight by limiting your intake of high fat foods, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. You should also eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and protein. If you need help planning your diet, a registered dietitian or nutritionist can help.

Also, make sure you get regular, but not excessive, exercise. This can help you maintain a healthy weight. 30-60 minutes of exercise 3-5 days a week is sufficient.

Know and Avoid Triggers

Certain situations can trigger disordered eating behavior. Do not let yourself get too hungry and do not deprive yourself of good-tasting food. Feelings of deprivation can lead to cravings and food binges. If you crave a certain high-fat, high-calorie food, it is okay to have it occasionally.

There are probably certain foods and situations that tempt you to overeat. Keep these foods out of the house and stay away from tempting situations as much as possible. If you tend to overeat at buffets, for example, stay away from them.

Emotions, such as fear, anger, sadness, and even happiness, can be powerful triggers for food binges. Pay attention to your feelings and how you may turn to food to deal with them. Find other ways to deal with strong emotions, such as talking with a friend or therapist or writing in a journal.

Receive Treatment, as Necessary

Do not feel defeated if you fall back into your old habits. This does not mean that you have failed. You are learning to build new habits, which can take time. If you have a relapse, call your therapist right away and schedule an appointment. You may need to re-evaluate and fine tune your recovery program.

Work on Building a Meaningful, Fulfilling, and Satisfying Life

Rather than focusing on food and weight for fulfillment, spend time building a meaningful, satisfying life. This involves developing feelings of competence and self-esteem by discovering and using your talents. Work on appreciating and enjoying your abilities without having to do everything perfectly. Develop some hobbies and do things that are fun and pleasurable. Join some clubs and groups with people who share common interests and work on developing healthy relationships.

Develop Effective Coping Skills

Stressful life events can trigger eating disorders in susceptible people or trigger a relapse in those who have recovered. You can control self-induced stress by developing a healthier self-image and more reasonable expectations. This can be achieved through counseling and learning how to take charge of the things you can control, such as your attitude and ability to make healthy choices.

Various relaxation techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing, progressive relaxation, yoga, and biofeedback, can also help you cope with stress. These techniques increase your awareness of tension in your body and help release it through exercises that quiet your mind and relax your muscles. Regular pleasurable activities can help you relieve stress as well.

Take Medicines as Prescribed

Most people with eating disorders will have medicines prescribed. These medicines are not a cure, but they can be important in helping you avoid disordered eating behaviors. Many people with eating disorders also have associated psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Medicines may also help reduce symptoms of these disorders and, as a result, eliminate triggers that lead to disordered eating. Learning to take medicine each day is often itself a major lifestyle change.

Revision Information

  • About eating disorders. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website. Available at: http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders. Accessed July 11, 2013.

  • Eating disorders. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml. Updated 2011. Accessed July 11, 2013.

  • General information. National Eating Disorders Association website. Available at: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/general-information. Accessed July 11, 2013.

  • Troop NA, Holbrey A, et al. Stress, coping, and crisis support in eating disorders. Int J Eat Disord. 1998;24:157-166.

  • Yager J, Devlin MJ, et al. Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Eating Disorders. 3rd ed. American Psychiatric Association; 2006. Available at: http://www.guideline.gov/content.aspx?id=9318. Accessed July 11, 2013.