Technology and Management of Eating Disorders

Woman using smartphone while eating salad and smoothie at cafe
Photo: Thinkstock/Antonio_Diaz

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder every 62 minutes. Research has established that media has an impact on body image perception, however there is no single cause of disordered eating. The internet and social media have accelerated the rate of information exchange and changed the way messages are communicated. Despite the negative effects of technology on eating disorder prevalence, technology can play a positive role in the treatment of eating disorders. 

Smartphone and Tablet Apps

HIPAA-compliant apps are a great supplemental tool to assist healthcare providers in the treatment of eating disorders. Using an app in practice and treatment can allow the dietitian to obtain a substantial amount of information from the patient that may not be available otherwise. Apps for eating disorder treatment may serve as food diaries, but without the portion sizes, calories or macronutrient information. Apps can prompt the patient to answer questions at meal time, such as:

  • How do you feel?
  • Where, when and with whom did you eat?
  • Was your portion size too small, too large or just right?

This information is then available to dietitians in real time, so they can check on a patient’s progress at any time. Patients also can upload pictures of their meals for the clinician to see. Messaging features within treatment apps allow the patient and dietitian to have HIPAA-compliant communication between visits. This allows the RDN to give the patient positive reinforcement outside of a face-to-face visit.

The dietitian can see a comprehensive overview of how patients are doing, both emotionally and with their eating. This eliminates the need for spending significant amounts of time during a session gathering this information.

Virtual Counseling Via Video Calls

Virtual counseling is a growing practice. Many RDNs are using this method of counseling in private practice. Because eating disorder treatment can be very intensive, virtual appointments can be beneficial when patients don’t have time for an in-person session as often as their treatment plan recommends. A benefit to virtual counseling is that if the patient moves (a common example would be a high school student who moves away to college) they can continue treatment with the same dietitian. This can help alleviate stress during chaotic times and assure that treatment continues as planned.

As dietitians, it is important that we utilize technology as it becomes available to us. The treatment of eating disorders is no easy task, but incorporating technology into traditional practice can make the experience more seamless and effective for both dietitians and their patients.

Julia Dugas

Julia Dugas, RDN, is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland Dietetic Internship and resides in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area.