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Chef's cooking class helps those with eating disorders learn healthy food habits

Riley Wells' cooking classes are all about developing a healthy relationship with food and having some fun in the process.
/ Source: TODAY

Activities like making a snack or baking cookies may seem like fun for most people, but for those suffering from eating disorders these simple tasks can feel overwhelming. Chef Riley Wells aims to change that: At an eating disorder treatment facility in North Carolina called Veritas Collaborative, he's created a kitchen skills program to help patients in recovery.

Woody Moore, now 22, who spent time as a teen at Veritas Collaborative, found that the classes helped her become more comfortable with foods that triggered her disordered eating.

In the months she spent at the facility, one of the highlights of her week was culinary group — a class taught by Wells, a chef who works as kitchen manager at Veritas, that's designed to teach patients within the program kitchen skills and give them a repertoire of healthy snacks they can prepare themselves once they've returned home.

At Veritas Collaborative, Riley Wells teaches cooking and kitchen skill classes for patients with eating disorders.Veritas Collaborative

Moore says the class was a welcome break from some of the emotional therapy sessions she participated in during her treatment.

"Sometimes we'd get to bake during that time, which is challenging from an eating disorder perspective when you're not used to eating those foods or are anxious about learning what goes into those foods," Moore told TODAY. "At first, with my restrictive eating disorder, it was harder to eat a brownie if I witnessed the butter that went into it, for example, but through baking in class, it turned into something enjoyable and fun for me. That was kind of therapeutic in its own way."

"Pre-eating-disorder me, I would bake all the time," Moore added. "I would do it to decompress and forget about schoolwork, but then it became something I had to rediscover. Having those classes was integral in my journey with food."

Chef Wells, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, developed the classes as a way to get young people within the facility comfortable being around and talking about food.

In his classes, Wells teaches adolescent patients how to cook healthy foods and practice safety in the kitchen.Veritas Collaborative

"Our culinary groups are focused on the getting the patient reacquainted with being in the kitchen again, and our recipes tend to lean toward quick meals and snacks," said Wells, who has taught the young patients in his classes everything from basic knife skills to how to make a simple breakfast burrito. "I get to bond with patients and chat with them about food, restaurants, snacks and become a direct link for them to have normalized discussions about food."

Leah Graves is the vice president of nutrition and culinary services at Veritas, and said Wells' classes are designed to make up for skill deficits patients in the program have developed around food.

"As a mom, for example, your kids play around in the kitchen with you and experiment or help make cookies or do different types of things that are developmentally on point. They begin to develop confidence and skill in the kitchen, but children and youth with eating disorders don't engage in that way," Graves explained. "So Riley, by just being Riley and cooking with these children, is actually helping them to navigate a normative developmental step that they avoided because they were ill and rendered that an unsafe experience."

"We’re also trying to create a little skill along the way, too," said Graves, "so that over time they can develop independent living skills that will serve them when they’re ready to move on to the next step like going to college or having their first apartment."

Graves said at Veritas, they treat patients with commonly known eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but also conditions like avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), an eating disorder where patients are highly selective about the limited amount of foods they will eat.

Whatever the condition, Wells' classes are designed to help all Veritas patients in their recovery.

Wells' classes are designed to help young people who have eating disorders develop a healthy relationship with food.Veritas Collaborative

"A lot of our patients have been afraid to eat or have lost control with certain types of foods or have other types of eating disorder behaviors that have made the kitchen feel unsafe," Graves added. "Especially for our younger patients, our children and adolescents — this illness impacts young people very, very early. When I entered the field, the average onset for these illnesses was 14 ½ but today it’s 12 ½."

Today, Moore attends college, and says she often thinks back to her days in the kitchen with Wells when she's tempted to return to restrictive eating.

"Part of my success comes from knowing what a balanced meal looks like and learning about different sources of protein, carbs, fats and vegetables. It was very practical to know how to prepare a balanced meal," said More. "That’s a thing I still use a lot now, being a college student, it’s given me ideas of how to feed myself which has been a huge part of learning how to eat intuitively again and to work on variety in my diet."

“In the eating disorder, I would pretty much eat the same thing every single day and now I can eat in a way that's nutrition conscious but also conscious of food as pleasure," Moore continued. "A lot of times I’ll ask myself, 'What did I eat at Veritas?' and that helps."

Wells says it's the success of his patients that makes him passionate about developing his classes.

"It’s incredibly rewarding to show patients a skill, watch them use it and witness their happiness when they create something new," Wells said.