Posted on 2 Comments

When your child is dropped by their eating disorder dietitian

When your child is dropped by their eating disorder dietitian

Sometimes a person who has an eating disorder is dropped or discharged from the care of a Registered Dietitian (RD). Parents may wonder why this happens and whether such behavior is ethical given how fragile their child is.

It’s undoubtedly hard for parents to hear their child has been discharged. If your child is under 18, you may be the one who the dietitian informs that they are terminating treatment. In this case, you will likely get the reasoning directly from them. But if your child is over 18, there’s a good chance that you will get the news second-hand. Your child will tell you their version of why they’ve been dropped or discharged by their eating disorder dietitian.

In either case, the news can be shocking, bewildering, and painful.

Grace’s story

That’s what happened to Grace*, a client of mine whose daughter Casey* is 19 years old and has bulimia. “We’ve had a terrible week because on Monday Casey’s dietitian dropped her,” she said, shaking her head in dismay. “Why would a person do that? Casey is getting worse – she’s in terrible danger. So why would her dietitian, who has been working with her for over a year, drop her right now?”

Grace was in tremendous pain. Casey had spent the week raging against her dietitian and her whole care team. Casey’s eating disorder symptoms, which were already getting worse, ramped up to levels Grace hadn’t seen before. Her daughter was medically in danger, but because she is over 18, Grace had limited options. 

Things had been getting worse for Casey for a while. But knowing she was seeing a dietitian in person every week helped Grace feel a bit more secure. “I admit that those weekly sessions gave me hope,” she said. “At least I knew that Casey was being monitored and talking to someone who could help her.” 

“I don’t know what we’re going to do now,” she said. “I’m really at the end of my rope. And I’m so angry with the dietitian for putting us in this situation.” 

I completely understand Grace’s feelings. As we talked, we tried to understand what being dropped by the dietitian during eating disorder recovery meant for them.

Trying to find out what’s going on

I had a pretty good idea that what was going on is that Grace’s daughter’s dietitian had hit a point in treatment at which it felt medically and ethically unsafe to continue treating Grace in outpatient treatment. 

There had been months of weekly dietitian meetings and continued signs of medical instability. It sounded as if the dietitian had hit the point at which her training and expertise were at their limit. But it’s never simple, so I reached out to Leslie Schilling, MA, RDN, CEDS-S. Schilling runs a private nutrition therapy and wellness coaching business. She is also a supervisor for other dietitians working with eating disorders. 

“Ending treatment with a client is such a nuanced situation,” says Schilling. “I work really hard to avoid discharging a person from my care. Because I know how difficult it is, and it may feel like abandonment.”

“That said, there are times, particularly in a situation in which the person clearly needs a higher level of care, that I may have them sign a form or agreement acknowledging that I have recommended a higher level of care and they are choosing to continue working at this level of care instead,” she says.

“Many people don’t realize that dietitians provide a service called medical nutrition therapy. This includes some medical components like reviewing lab values, food-drug interactions, and systems assessments,” says Schilling. “And, if we see someone who is extremely medically compromised and needs to be in inpatient care, we could be at risk if we continue to treat them.”

emotional regulation

Why does it happen?

There can be many reasons a person may be dropped by their eating disorder dietitian. Here are the most common reasons: 

1. Lack of specialty

Sometimes a dietitian will start working with someone without realizing how serious their eating disorder is. Maybe when they started the eating disorder was not recognized or disclosed. But then the RD realizes the person has an eating disorder. If the RD is not an eating disorder specialist, then they would probably refer the client to someone who is qualified to treat them. 

2. No team

If a dietitian is working with someone who has an eating disorder alone, they may decide that they cannot continue without the addition of a team. This is typically a medical doctor, therapist, and possibly a psychiatrist. If a client refuses to work with a team, the dietitian may need to make some difficult decisions about the ethics of continuing care alone.

“In most cases when supporting someone with an eating disorder, I do not recommend that a dietitian work alone – you really need a complete care team,” says Schilling. “I am not a therapist, and I can’t work on certain aspects of the eating disorder the way a therapist can. I also can’t admit someone to a hospital with a low glucose level, although I can read that in their lab work. Working without a team is not a good idea when we’re dealing with an active eating disorder.”

3. Personal reasons

Sometimes a professional will begin working with someone and then need to disengage for personal reasons. This could be for family reasons like pregnancy or elder care, moving to a new practice or out of state, retiring, or a number of other situations. 

In these cases, the dietitian rarely leaves their client hanging and will typically give their client plenty of notice and provide them with referrals to other professionals. Sometimes emergencies or illnesses mean a dietitian must end treatment abruptly. While not ideal, these situations are sometimes unavoidable. This is one of the reasons why eating disorder dietitians prefer to work with a team.

4. Ethical issues

There are cases in which a dietitian must make an ethical determination about care. “At a certain point, a dietitian may need to evaluate whether their client needs a higher level of care, particularly if they are medically compromised,” says Schilling.

“Sometimes there are other things that take priority over seeing the dietitian, like acute mental health concerns or stabilizing someone medically. I’ve often stepped back while other members offer more support until the client becomes stable enough to resume nutrition therapy,” she says. 

Schilling says this situation usually begins with the dietitian exploring the issue with the patient’s treatment team, and then talking to the client about recommending a higher level of care. “If the client really wants to keep working with me, or doesn’t feel safe entering a higher level of care, then I’ll use a form or waiver that clearly states my recommendation and the client’s preference to continue working together despite my recommendation,” she says. 

She says this is important since dietitians provide medical nutrition therapy and may be at risk of liability. “If we recommend a higher level of care and the client refuses to sign the waiver, then we will still give options and referrals. This is a tricky situation that would need to be discussed with the dietitian’s professional supervisor if they have one and the patient’s treatment before discharging from care. This isn’t a decision a dietitian would make hastily.”

Thinking it through

Schilling, who supervises eating disorder dietitians in addition to treating eating disorder clients in her practice, says that it’s rare that a client would be let go without extensive conversations, attempts to make progress, and referrals to other professionals or a higher level of care.

When Grace started to think about it, we were able to deduce that this is likely what happened with her daughter Casey. Casey’s entire team has been recommending a higher level of care for months, in fact almost since they started working together. Casey’s dietitian introduced a treatment contract over six months ago, which is a way that a dietitian tries to establish treatment milestones and move a client forward in their recovery.

Grace told me that Casey complained bitterly about the contract. And while we don’t know if Casey was offered a waiver to continue care under the dietitian, it’s very likely that the dietitian hit an ethical issue in treating Casey.

Grace says Casey complains that her team is pressuring her into a higher level of care, and Grace herself has been desperately trying to get Casey to enter inpatient treatment.

In fact, that’s a big part of the work we’re doing together. I’ve been coaching Grace to build influence in their relationship and have more effective conversations about Casey’s eating disorder and treatment.

Next steps

With a bit of clarity, Grace understands the dietitian’s choice. “I still hate it,” Grace says. “It puts me in a really bad place.” 

Grace is going to have some tough conversations with Casey. Based on our understanding of why the RD released Casey from her care, we can guess that Casey is severely medically compromised. 

Grace needs to get really clear with Casey about how treatment needs to proceed. There is no easy solution here because of Casey’s age. But Grace is not willing to give up. “I’m fighting for my daughter’s life right now,” she says courageously. “I’m going to figure out how to get her the help she needs.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy


Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

2 thoughts on “When your child is dropped by their eating disorder dietitian

  1. Seems like the dietitian is in an impossible situation and also being portrayed as the bad guy in this story. The bad guy is the refusal to get an appropriate level of care, and those involved in that decision. Easy to paint the dietitian as the problem, though she did the right thing.

    1. I agree with you that it sounds like the dietitian made the right choice in this situation, and it also makes sense that the parent is upset and scared. Did you read the full article? I don’t think I painted the dietitian as a problem. It seems to me that the dietitian made the right choice. At the same time, I can understand why the parent initially aimed her distress towards the dietitian since she didn’t have the information she needed to do otherwise. The point of the article is to explore why a dietitian might do this so that parents can learn and understand. xoxo

Leave a Reply