To many of our clients, the idea of “experimental eating” can be anxiety provoking and avoided at all costs. However, walking our clients through experimenting with food can be beneficial not only in incorporating feared foods into the diet, but in also understanding the process of experimenting.
What is experimental eating? The best way to think of the process of experimenting is through the scientific method. The scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. (Goldhaber & Nieto 2010). An experiment is NOT a test. To the perfectionistic client, a test can be overwhelming and guilt-producing if not done “perfectly.” Experimenting is also good for “risk-averse” clients who may be anxious about encountering change. Framing it was an experiment allows for observation of process and outcome. It is simply data-collection.
Why do experimental eating? Eating disorder thoughts/fears are often amplified false beliefs. Our clients may have initially started with a valid fear or negative experience, but avoidance of the negative thoughts have amplified the false belief. The eating disorder finds safety and security in rules- these rules keep things in orderly, well-defined categories- supporting black-or-white thinking. The eating disorder loves rigidity and hates flexibility. A healthy mindset incorporates flexibility, compromise and taking into account a situation, is able to reason and develop reasonable results/conclusions.
How can I support my client in experimental eating? Try it yourself! (1) IDENTIFY a food rule/eating behavior rule. Why is this food/behavior a challenge for you? What history or information about this food/behavior makes it a challenge for you? (2) CREATE a plan. Plan out the experiment. Try one food item at one meal. Create some safety nets around the experiment. Plan to eat the experimental food with safer foods. Conduct the experiment in a safe environment. (3) IMPLEMENT the experiment. Write down as many observations as you can, not conclusions. Observe the food (taste, feel, look, sound, smell). Observe your feelings in the body, mouth, stomach. Observe the experience (Was it the same/more/less difficulty than expected? What thoughts surfaced?)
Review your client’s observations with them. Be curious alongside your client—ask Why? How? When? What? And create new experiments based on this original experiment.
Experimental eating can be implemented in all levels of recovery. Experiments can be very simple and start out with less scary/more safe foods. For others, experiments can also be more complex and deal directly with more challenging foods/behaviors. The idea is not necessarily to love every experimental food that they try, but to acquire new knowledge/correct previous knowledge and to challenge the eating disorder rigidity. Try experimental eating yourself today!
By Johanna M. Dong, MA, RD