Sticking to a meal plan, whether recovering from an eating disorder or not, is challenging. Just like any other diet*, it can easily be thrown off course by unanticipated or emotionally triggering events. In fact, studies have shown that 95% of all dieters are back at their starting weight within 5 years of beginning a program. While this statistic commonly refers to those on a weight loss regimen, I believe there is a lot of crossover between the problems weight-loss-dieters and weight-gain-dieters encounter.

When I was just out of inpatient and diligently following my meal plan, I was surprised to find that what tripped me up the most wasn’t always the food or the impending weight gain. It was family and friends that didn’t quite understand what I was doing and why. I can’t count the times a well-intended friend pushed a batch of fresh baked brownies my way saying, “I thought you could eat this now.” Well, I would think to myself, I can eat brownies, just not those brownies. I need a brownie made with portion-controlled ingredients measured out with military precision that has been weighed on a digital scale to the exact gram. But since that was quite a mouthful and begged a dozen questions I wasn’t prepared to field, I tended to revert to the polite, “no thank you.”

While adhering to a meal plan often temporarily introduces a whole new slew of food rules, it affords the peace of mind that you are eating within allowable parameters. In a sense, the meal plan gives you a “ticket to eat,” or as my therapist referred to it, “a food prescription.” Initially, it is important to strictly follow the plan as you restore weight, normalize eating, and work through emotional baggage. Going off plan too early can be a slippery slope leading to relapse. Unfortunately, friends and family have the potential to confuse the new recovery-focused food rules for eating disorder behavior. If you combine that with the misunderstanding that recovery from an eating disorder is an overnight occurrence it’s easy to see why the unintentional sabotage occurs.

To help you stick to your meal plan when up against uninformed or unsupportive friends and family members I’ve assembled a list of tips that really helped me.

1) Get comfortable saying NO

You’re armed with the meal plan and you know what you need to eat. If someone offers you food that doesn’t fit in with your recovery plan, just say no. With food and emotions so closely intertwined perhaps saying no to grandma’s home-cooked lasagna or fresh-baked cookies will hurt her feelings, but right now that can’t be your top priority. Thank her for the offer, say no, offer an explanation if your feel comfortable, and then move on.

2) Educate others

Tell those closest to you about your meal plan. If they know what you are doing they will be able to offer support and encouragement instead of criticism or misplaced advice. This also makes you accountable to eat the food on your plan.

3) It’s all in the preparation

Don’t get thrown off because you had to work late, came home tired, and now your family is beckoning you to come eat the pizza they ordered. If you are at a point where you can do some quick mental math and substitute pizza for your planned meal, great! If not, make sure you have some quick back-ups in place, think supplemental drinks, frozen foods, or prepackaged snacks (or, thanks to your newfound raging metabolism, all three).

4) Offer to cook

Do you have a hard time getting your family to understand why you measure everything? Would you like to eat the same meal as everyone else but can’t get the cook to accommodate your needs? Cook a meal for everyone. When you are in the kitchen you can measure the ingredients in your meal to get an accurate count and, unless someone is watching you, they probably won’t be any wiser to what you are doing.

5) Ask for modifications

You never know how accommodating your family will be unless you ask. To this day when I am having a rough day with food I ask my husband to whip out the kitchen scale to make sure my meal is xxx calories. He understands the important role meal planning plays in recovery, and is always willing to oblige. But getting up the courage to ask him is the first step.

6) Get a wingman (or wingwoman)

A wingman comes in handy when your reserves are running low and you can’t bear the thought of explaining one more time why you brought your own food to (insert any family holiday or social gathering). A good wingman can deflect questions, support your decision, encourage you in the face of disapproval, and be your personal advocate in recovery.

7) Be resolute in your recovery

Following a meal plan 100% of the time is hard. If you don’t know why you’re doing it, then it becomes 100x harder. Work on getting to the root reasons for why you want recovery (making a list is helpful-as well as countless hours in therapy) and then work on understanding the important connection between meal planning and recovery.

So gather your measuring cups and spoons, the kitchen scale, and nutritional guides and commit yourself to meal planning. Because in the end, whether or not your family members and friends are on board, you are only accountable to yourself.

* I am referring to a way of eating, not calorie restriction.

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