Everything you’ve wanted to know that the internet won’t tell you.
“Experience is the father of all wisdom.
And assumption is his bitch” – Brett Sutton.
If there’s one thing certain to strike fear into the bones of most humans, it’s someone knowing the intimate details of your daily doings – every morsel of food and fluid intake scrutinised, every measure of fitness and body fat calculated, every minute of calorie-sapping exercise tallied. And judged. Usually by an underweight and pale young woman sitting unusually upright on the other side of a cold desk (sorry for the stereotype but I know a lot of dieticians and it’s hard to argue with it!).
OK so they get a bad rap. But here’s the thing – they can be your ticket to freedom and your greatest ally. They can get you what you want, faster than you can get there on your own. They can take you to new heights of perfectionism in the body composition department and by default, they can lift your athletic performances through the roof. And lower your injury and illness count. They can help you learn to eat more normally, without necessarily putting on weight.
So what’s the catch? Like any industry, there are bad ones and good ones, and you need to get it right. A bad experience can be nothing short of traumatising, so do the work first to limit the chances of hitting a bad one.
Look for an Accredited Sports Dietician (whether you’re an athlete or not…).
In Australia to become a dietician requires a 4 year-degree. During that time they learn a lot about a lot….but don’t become specialists in any one field. They’re basically good at general nutrition and hospital nutrition. To then become an Accredited Sports Dietician they have to do an extremely difficult course which involves training in the specifics of manipulating body composition in athletes and also in dealing with eating disorders, which come with a host of specific challenges (physiologically, metabolically and emotionally). I actually know good dietician friends of mine who openly admit they won’t treat ED’s, so challenging is the task. So rule number 1 to avoid a horrible experience with a dietician is to find a good one with appropriate training, and you can minimise that risk by searching on the Sports Dieticians Australia website (or relevant body in your country).
Even better: Find a Sports Dietician who has an interest in treating Eating Disorders (note I did not say “find a dietician who obviously HAS an eating disorder….).
I’ve had several bad experiences with the stereotypical uptight-skinny-hospital-dietician in my time and while they were great at boosting my weight when I probably needed it, they weren’t great at inspiring my faith in the recovery process being all rainbows and unicorns (it’s not, but it doesn’t have to be as bad with the help of someone more useful and “real-world”). So how do you find a good one without totally blowing your cover? Well I was lucky enough to have a close friend go through the dietician process first, and I knew that she was seeing someone but not gaining any weight. I probed. She confided that she instructed the dietician that she wants to learn to eat more normally, but only under the proviso she didn’t gain any weight and didn’t have to stop exercising. And the dietician obliged. I booked in the next week.
Failing being that lucky, the internet is a good resource for searching – most good dieticians will have a bio on their website and state their treatment interests. Also check their photos if they have them and see if they have a glint in their eye, shiny hair, glowing skin, no collarbones sticking out…..the healthier they are the better off you’ll be with them.
“The thought of fronting up for the first time makes me want to vomit”, “they’re going to see straight through me!”, “I’m too fat to have an eating disorder”, “If they find out how little I eat they’ll tell my family” …..and other irrational fears.
I 100% understand all of the above fears and many more. So having been through it myself, here’s the actual facts of the matter.
Yes, they will likely see straight away that you have disordered eating of some type but they will not bring that up with you, at least not initially. They legally cannot tell anyone, unless you are under 18 and extremely, about-to-drop-dead underweight (if you are over 18 you will have a say in the matter). Anything that is said to them – exercise patterns, food intake, weight etc – is legally confidential. It’s a safe space. A good dietician probably won’t weight you, and especially won’t if you ask not to be. My dietician always took other measures like circumferences but never told me what they were, just whether they were up or down. People with dietary issues come in all shapes and sizes – seriously sick bulimics can be overweight, just like someone who’s had anorexia for a very long time can be normal weight due to metabolism dysfunction – so they will never, ever look at you and think “you’re too fat to have an eating disorder”. Ever. Promise.
If you’re seeing a private dietician, and you’re paying for it, their job is to facilitate you with your goal. Whatever that goal is.
If you go in and request to eat more and stay the same weight (so long as you’re not about to die on the spot from malnutrition, in which case a hospital dietician is actually more useful to you), they will work with you on that. When I first started seeing my dietician, I was 8kg less than I am now, my “healthy adult weight”. So, not grossly underweight, but not ideal either. I was hardly eating anything, exercising the house down, miserable…..and my metabolism was getting more thrifty by the year (making it harder to lose weight). I was over it.
What she did then single-handedly prompted my recovery, in earnest this time. Over the course of a long time, she introduced more foods and more volume, and – miraculously – I actually maintained weight, even lost it at one point. During this “trust” experiment, we also included a period of 2 weeks of zero exercise, to overcome my greatest fear – of putting on weight if I stopped training. It was the scariest thing and still makes me feel sick remembering how stressful it was. I actually lost weight, which gave me a huge confidence boost in my mind and body.
Of course, I did need to gain weight in order to be healthy. But she never pushed me, just gently supported me and taught me to trust food and my body. I maintained that weight for a further 3 years, then eventually when I was ready I allowed my weight to very slowly increase to where it sits today. And I can honestly say, now that my body has hit its set point, I can pretty much eat whatever I like and it stays within 1-2 kgs. I put this down to having such a good program to start with.
You don’t need a referral from a doctor to book in.
In Australia you can call and book with a private dietician without a referral. You do not need to tell the receptionist over the phone what you want to be treated for. The cost will vary, depending on the practitioner (generally better ones are more expensive); you can claim about half the fee back from your private health cover.
Ultimately you are paying for the service and hence their job is to meet your goals. They will discuss your goals with you and go through relevant information, give you little things to work on. They’ll send you off for a couple of weeks to work on it and then remeasure and continue. Every single day they see patients who have exercise addictions, want to improve body composition, have disordered eating, thrifty metabolisms and crazy dietary practices, and who think “they’re too fat to have an eating problem”. There’s nothing they won’t have seen.
My road to recovery would have been a rollercoaster of metabolism riots and psychological warfare – as opposed to a relatively smooth upwards progress curve – had I not made the mighty step to make contact with my dietician. How do I know? Because I’d tried the other way for a decade beforehand. And it was failing miserably.
“You do not drown simply by falling into dark waters; you only drown if you stay beneath the surface” – Paolo Coelho
You can do it.