What is Mechanical Eating? Why You Need it in Disordered Eating Recovery

If you struggle with an eating disorder, you may have heard of mechanical eating. This type of eating is often necessary during recovery and means you follow a structured way of eating. This is because it’s important to meet your nutrition needs and regain your body cues.

This article will explore why structured and mechanical eating is needed, what a structured way of eating looks like, and how to overcome challenges that may come up. I hope it’s helpful in your recovery from disordered eating, let’s get into it…

What does mechanical eating mean?

Mechanical eating is a crucial phase in the recovery of eating disorders. It involves consuming meals and snacks at fixed times with predetermined portion sizes and food choices.

The key components of mechanical eating include the time of day for meals and snacks, the frequency of consumption, the amount of food to be eaten, and the types of food to be consumed during meals.

The primary goal of mechanical eating is to establish a routine and structure for eating, which is non-negotiable. This approach can be challenging for individuals with eating disorders as it may trigger difficult emotions and challenge the eating disorder voice. However, maintaining structure during the initial stages of recovery is essential, and a designated meal plan with outlined meal times is crucial.

Mechanical eating helps individuals with eating disorders to develop a healthy relationship with food and establish a regular eating pattern, which is fundamental for their recovery.

Why is it important?

Structured eating is crucial during the early stages of eating disorder recovery. It provides permission to eat for individuals who are afraid of gaining weight, and it ensures that they are consuming enough food to nourish their bodies. Even if hunger and fullness cues are no longer present, structured eating forces individuals to eat, which helps them to weight restore in a safe and healthy manner.

Moreover, structured eating is particularly important for people who experience hypermetabolism during eating disorder recovery. In such cases, energy needs are exceptionally high, making a mechanical eating plan even more critical.

Individuals with eating disorders have a “starved brain”, which can make it difficult or impossible for them to eat. Real structural and hormonal shifts occur, making it essential to have a structured eating plan to follow.

Structured eating helps you to know that you are eating enough, even if strong physical and mental aversions to hunger exist.

How long does mechanical eating last?

Mechanical eating is an essential part of eating disorder recovery, and its duration varies from person to person. The structured meal plan needs to be in place for a period that depends on several factors.

The length of time a person has had an eating disorder, the type of eating disorder recovery (inpatient vs outpatient), compliance with treatment programs, rate of weight restoration, if hypermetabolism is present, and emotional responses to eating are all factors that determine the duration of mechanical eating.

For some people, using a mechanical eating plan until six months after they get their period back can be a good starting point. For many, mechanical eating lasts about three months after weight restoration is complete.

However, some people may always need and choose to use the guidance of mechanical eating. This is common in those with sensitive nervous systems, disabled people, or neurodivergent people.

It is important to remember that no time frame is superior for completing mechanical eating. All lead to the path of recovery, and letting go of mechanical eating sooner will not necessarily mean a quicker recovery.

In general, 3-6 months is a good starting point. After this, you can probably begin to eat more intuitively.

mechanical eating vs. Intuitive Eating

In the early stages of eating disorder recovery, intuitive eating may not be appropriate. Intuitive eating involves trusting your body, honouring your hunger, and eliminating food rules and fear of foods.

However, a person in early recovery is not really capable of any of these things. Encouraging intuitive eating during this time may be harmful to the person with an eating disorder, as they may just translate this practice into another eating disorder behaviour.

Early eating disorder recovery requires meal structure to ensure meeting all of the nutrition needs. Mechanical eating provides enough structure to achieve this, unlike intuitive eating. It allows for a more structured approach to eating, which can be beneficial for those in recovery. A meal plan can be created, and meals can be eaten at set times to ensure adequate nutrition.

Support for mechanical eating can be found in various forms, including meal plans, nutritional counseling, and support groups. It is important to remember that while mechanical eating may be necessary for early recovery, it is not a long-term solution. As recovery progresses, you may be able to transition to intuitive eating.

frequently asked questions

What exactly is mechanical eating?

Mechanical eating is eating without paying much attention to the food being consumed. It’s not what you would think of for “mindful” eating. Mechanical eating is often associated with multitasking or eating while distracted.

How many times per day do you eat with mechanical eating?

Probably 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. That’s what most people need to function everyday, so try that as a start point.

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