Author: Breanna Mills R.D.
Mechanical eating is a very important concept in eating disorder recovery and is the foundation of recovery. Hunger and fullness cues are often disrupted by an eating disorder, so we cannot rely on them to dictate when to eat and how much to eat at the beginning stages of renourishment. Mechanical eating is a regular, structured pattern of eating that helps to restore hunger and fullness cues, renourish the brain and body, help support weight restoration if required and can help to neutralize foods that feel challenging or fearful. Mechanical eating can be thought of as eating by the clock on a predictable, organized schedule, regardless of how hungry or full we may feel.
What does mechanical eating look like?
Although everyone’s individual needs are different, mechanical eating for recovery usually looks like three meals and three snacks, spaced out roughly three hours apart, aiming to include at least three food groups at every meal. This concept, called the Rule of Three’s, was developed by Dr. Marcia Herrin. This amount helps to ensure we are meeting daily needs and the spacing out of meals helps to match our liver’s capability to maintain our blood sugar levels throughout the day. Our liver has limited storage capacity and as this gets depleted, we need to eat again to maintain steady levels. This pattern of eating is similar to what an appetite-based eating pattern would look like, which can help individuals start to notice hunger and fullness signals coming back and work on responding to them. Mechanical eating can help to decrease preoccupation about food, since there is a plan for when, how much and sometimes what you will be eating. Mechanical eating also helps to regulate digestion, as the digestive system gets used to breaking down and digesting food on a regular basis.
Mechanical eating is a tool that is helpful for anyone that struggles with an eating disorder, regardless of the eating disorder behaviours you may struggle with. Mechanical eating helps everyone to meet energy and nutrient needs, which provides nourishment to the brain and body. The eating disorder may have something to say about this style or pattern of eating. It is important to remember that the body needs an adequate amount of nourishment to keep you alive and needs additional nourishment on top of that to help you get through all of the activities of daily life. It may feel challenging at first, especially if it is more food and nourishing on a more consistent basis than you are used to. Remember that just because the eating disorder may say it is too much food, does not mean it actually is. As you gain practice with mechanical eating, some people may start to notice hunger and fullness cues come back and start to experiment with listening and responding to these. Some people may prefer to maintain a higher level of structure for a longer period of time. It is normal to have some level of structure and organization in our eating throughout our lives.
Mechanical eating is one of the first steps towards freedom from the eating disorder and helps to provide adequate nourishment on a predictable, consistent basis. Nourishing our brain and body adequately lays the foundation for further recovery work and full recovery from the eating disorder.