Nutrition Rehabilitation

Promotional graphic for "How to Nourish Your Child through an Eating Disorder"

Wendy Sterling ’99 is helping teens and athletes be their best selves

Adolescent nutritionist and Oakland Athletics’ team dietitian Wendy Meyer Sterling DNS ’99 is having a big year with the release of two new books aimed at helping teens overcome eating disorders, connect to their eating, and rehabilitate their bodies.

Released in July, “How to Nourish Your Child through an Eating Disorder” offers an innovative guide for parents to manage food for a child struggling with an eating disorder. The plate-by-plate approach teaches parents and adolescents a no-numbers, no-counting and no-measuring approach to eating that Sterling and co-writer Casey Crosbie developed and honed in their own practices and their work with the Healthy Teen Project, a partial hospitalization program in Los Altos, California.

Sterling explained that previously popular approaches to treating eating disorders in adolescents relied too heavily on counting calories, which can aggravate the problem for kids who are already pre-occupied with numbers. For many years in her own private practice in New York, she utilized an exchange-based tactic that teaches kids to eat again by telling them they have a certain number of milks, vegetables, grains, proteins, and fats to spend as they wish for the day. While it was rewarding for a kid to figure out how a brownie or cookie could fit safely into their eating habits, Sterling said, it was hard for them to give up the exchange model.

“Eventually they need to transition off these exchanges, but they’re often still bound by those numbers, they aren’t learning to eat freely,” she said.

The plate-by-plate approach incorporates family-based treatment to have parents take control of the plate and model exposure to a variety of foods, rather than focusing on diet or weight, which, Sterling said, should not be part of the discussion with teens struggling with eating disorders.

“The plate teaches them from the beginning to fill their plate with what looks normal and balanced,” she said. “We guide the parents along the way to do that so that when kids transition back to a normal approach, they’re still just using a plate. It works. We can help people normalize their body’s functions and metabolism, while rebuilding their relationship with food.”

“No Weigh! A Teen’s Guide to Body Image, Food, and Emotional Wisdom”, also released in July, is geared toward teaching teens about connected eating, body positivity, balanced exercise and how to navigate puberty, emotions and stress, giving teens the tools they need to become confident with their body and food choices. Sterling co-wrote the book with a adolescent medicine doctor and therapist.

Sterling said she loves spending time working with adolescents and families, in part because treating eating disorders at younger ages improves the impact and efficacy of treatment. Her advice for parents who suspect their child might have disordered eating: “Trust your intuition and investigate. The sooner you catch it, the better the prognosis. There’s no advantage to tiptoeing around it.”

When she is not working in private practice or writing books about groundbreaking approaches to treating adolescent eating disorders, the mother of two whose husband is also a Cornellian (Peter Sterling ‘98), is busy coordinating three meals a day for the Oakland A’s players, both at home and on the road. One of her favorite things about working in sports nutrition is the ability to measure improvement.

“When athletes come in with a performance issue, it is often tied to nutrition,” she said. “We can go through and systematically evaluate their diet – the balance, consistency and nutrient timing – and get a sense of what’s going on. When we correct the imbalances athletes get faster, stronger with more explosive energy. We can use nutrition to elevate their performance. They’re excited and I’m excited. It’s just fun.”

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