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I made a quick video to accompany an explanation of the exchange system, which is a method of meal planning that I was introduced to in treatment. Read on, try to ignore how flushed I am, and make sure to watch in HD 1080!
One exchange is, essentially, a quantity of food that can be ‘exchanged’ with another quantity within the same food group. Below is a picture of many possible exchanges, but for example, 1 cup of milk is equivalent to 1/2 of a cup of cottage cheese, 1/2 of a cup of fruit juice is equivalent to 1/4 of any whole dried fruit, etc…
A meal is then prepared with a certain number of exchanges per food group in mind. For instance, I may need 2 fruit exchanges, 3 vegetable, 1 fat, 4 starch, and 2 dairy, so I’d have 1 cup of juice, a salad with carrots, cheese and dressing, and 4/3 of a cup of pasta with tomato sauce, and that would just about satisfy my exchange needs for that meal.
This system is useful for multiple reasons. When I was first in treatment, after I understood the system, I was really grateful for the simplicity and systematic approach (although that may be the OCD talking, a bit). Exchanges tend to make meal planning less daunting for folks with eating disorders. It’s also ultimately a more healthy mindset because it focuses more on how much food a body needs and less on calorie counting and the “good” ness of measurements.
However, when the system is first created, it’s made using BMI and calorie needs as a guide. This is why I strongly recommend you make your own system with an experienced nutritionist, rather than by yourself… especially if you’re a disordered eater! It’s a tricky process to get right, but once you have the system down, it’ll bring you a long way.
I’m now able to “eyeball” my portions and daily intake, which is the goal of the system, eventually. With enough practice with cups and teaspoons, the hope is that measuring and numbers can be taken out of the equation entirely, leaving just an intuitive understanding of what the body needs to perform at its best.
I hope this was informative! Below is a list of common exchangeable food quantities.