Nutrition Counseling: From Eating Disorders To Dietary Habits

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Basic health is vital in maintaining a content mind, and a large part of a person's basic health is decided by their dietary habits. What, how much, and how often each person eats can factor in their behavior, moods, and thought processes.

Of course, the reality of your dietary situation is more complicated; your mental health can also play a role in the decisions you make regarding your diet. This can become a vicious cycle of mental health challenges that cause physical health issues that can loop back into deteriorating mental health.

If someone is experiencing an eating disorder or unhealthy dietary habits, such as binge eating, nutrition counseling may be helpful. This type of counseling is generally provided by a registered dietitian and enables people to develop healthy relationships with food.

How can eating habits affect the brain and vice versa?

Heredity can influence one's likelihood of developing an eating disorder, but that genetic predisposition may be dormant unless or until the individual is under a great deal of stress. This stress can be anything from natural processes like puberty to a traumatic event.

It was also said by Amanda Leigh Mascarelli in her article "Eating Disorders: The Brain's Foul Trickery", that neurotransmitters (messengers that transmit signals around the brain) play a significant role in stress, moods, and appetite. If some of these neurotransmitters are not being produced enough or are unbalanced, then the brain begins lying about the perception of your appearance.

There is also an increasing body of understanding related to how social pressures from peers and media – especially social media – can lead to unhealthy eating habits, especially in young people. According to one 2019 review of existing research, social media was found to increase habits of comparison between users and encourage negative perceptions of users’ own bodies, which may contribute to unhealthy eating habits. 

Unhealthy eating habits may start in the brain, but they don’t end there. When a person isn't eating as they should be, their body can lack key nutrients. Many of these nutrients are important for maintaining mental and emotional health. For example, we often think of calcium as being important for bone health. Bones are the last place in your body that calcium is used. It's a very important ion for the conduction of nerve impulses so people that don't get enough can have some serious symptoms.

Similarly, we think of proteins as being things that build muscle. While this is true, proteins are also broken down into amino acids that are used to construct chemical messengers in the body. Fats, the bane of many under-informed dieters, are also required for the storage or production of some chemical messengers in the body. Fat and water are also required as the stage for various chemical processes. Proper nutrition can be crucial to your health.

Other potential complications from unhealthy eating habits

Unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders can lead to emotional distress and negative body image which may result in "yo-yo dieting"—a cycle of severe dieting followed by rapid weight gain. This cycle can be hazardous to both physical and emotional health. Physically, yo-yo diets can cause severe changes in metabolism and difficulty absorbing key nutrients. It can also, in rare cases, lead to issues with bone strength or intestinal blockages. 

There are also some eating disorders, such as Pica, an eating disorder in which people compulsively eat inedible things such as hair. While Pica is different for everyone and many things that we don't usually eat are safe to eat, some of them can be dangerous in ways that most people aren't familiar with. For example, some people with Pica feel compelled to ingest metal. Some metals, such as iron or zinc, are in some foods and are necessary for the body to function properly. However, many metals, such as lead, are very bad for the body. Metals are also difficult for the body to remove so ingesting small amounts over a prolonged period can be more damaging than is the case with other dangerous chemicals like alcohol or even nicotine, which move through the body comparatively much faster.

Nutritional counseling from a food and nutrition expert 
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Nutrition counseling is professional counseling from a dietician to assess and address dietary habits and promote healthy eating on an individual level—essentially letting you know how to listen to your body and give it the food it needs. Generally, this begins with a recording of one's food intake in a certain amount of time. The most common and more concise method is recording what one has eaten over two weekdays and one weekend day. Registered dietitians can evaluate your food intake, offer tips for taking better care of your body, and provide meal plans or suggest intuitive eating, among other forms of support.

Your medical history and physical condition, including body weight, may also be assessed. This has traditionally been done using weight-for-height tables and body mass index (BMI) to determine whether someone is “underweight” or “overweight” in relation to their height. These metrics are largely falling out of favor, however, as neither takes muscle mass, genetic predispositions, medical conditions, or variations from physical sex and ethnicity into account. Healthcare providers may use other methods to measure body fat content independent from weight, among other factors. They may also look at your medical records from other healthcare professionals for more information regarding your health.

Online therapy for improved dietary habits

After this, therapists such as the ones at BetterHelp will speak to you and work with you to promote gradual improvement, help set up realistic goals, and maintain results. In most cases, talking to a licensed therapist will help to deal with the social, mental, and emotional causes of eating disorders that are not usually as well addressed during nutrition counseling. While nutrition counseling can be a great place to start, addressing your mental health can also be vital.

Cognitive behavioral techniques may be used to change negative thinking patterns to improve self-esteem related to body image. Research has found that online treatments for eating disorders and other unhealthy eating patterns are generally effective and can show a significant reduction in symptoms over the course of treatment.

That does not mean, however, that this kind of therapy is a replacement for nutrition counseling. The two services should be seen as complementary to one another and offering related and interconnected services rather than one being a replacement for the other. Both nutrition therapy and mental health therapy may have their place in treatment. Counseling, nutrition therapy, and other aspects of care can all play helpful roles.

It is important that therapists keep an open mind to a person's religious beliefs, preferences, and dietary requirements when arranging and encouraging regular meal schedules. If these are disregarded, the trust between a patient and a therapist is weakened, and therefore, the patient is more likely to stick with their original and damaging eating habits.

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During these sessions, addressing any issues related to anxiety after eating can also assist clients in identifying potential triggers so they can implement appropriate dietary adjustments to try and help alleviate their symptoms.

Takeaway

Unhealthy eating habits can be difficult to address on our own for a wide range of reasons, including genetic predispositions, personal trauma, and outside influences from places like social media. Having professional support in adjusting your diet to match your body’s needs can help you reach long-term success both physically and mentally. If you’re experiencing difficulty with nutrition or weight loss, know that you don’t have to face it alone. You may benefit from nutrition counseling, nutrition-related mental health care, and other forms of treatment. By talking to a licensed counselor, you may find that you can develop a healthy relationship with food while building your self-confidence. Take the first step toward getting support and contact BetterHelp today.

Healing from eating disorders is possible

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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