Eating disorders are a broad, complex range of mental conditions that cause impairments in one’s physical health due to long-term disturbances in their eating behaviors. These health impairments can be chronic and sometimes even deadly. However, eating disorders are treatable, as 60% of individuals who decide to receive professional treatment make a full recovery. Some groups are more likely to experience eating disorders than others.
Due to the complexities of the types of eating disorders, the co-morbid mental conditions, and health conditions that all may be involved, there are multiple treatment options that have been developed over time. Not every treatment option will necessarily be right for every disorder, nor will they be right for every person. Therapy is one such option that has been proven to be an effective tool within an eating disorder treatment plan.
This article will review the types of therapy available to treat eating disorders as well as other treatment and care options.
Types of Eating Disorders
There are several types of eating disorders, which may include a variety of symptoms such as eating too much, too little, only eating certain things, or feeling the need to do certain things to rid one’s body of the food. Some well-known eating disorders include:
- Anorexia Nervosa. This disorder is usually characterized by one having a body weight that is abnormally low alongside an intense fear of gaining weight. However, recent studies have shown that those at a higher body weight can also be affected by anorexia as well. Those affected with this disorder also have a distorted perception of weight and place a high value on controlling their weight and shape. These efforts often interfere with other parts of their life. People with anorexia control their caloric and food intake to extreme levels and may exercise excessively. All of these behaviors are often to help someone cope with their emotional problems.
- Bulimia Nervosa. This disorder involves one secretly binging (eating large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control) and then purging, which involves trying to rid themselves of the calories in a way that is unhealthy (such as forcing oneself to vomit). One may also exercise excessively or misuse laxatives. People with bulimia tend to be preoccupied with their weight.
- Binge Eating Disorder. This disorder is characterized by frequently consuming unusually large amounts of food on a regular occurrence. It accompanies a feeling of being unable to stop eating and feeling that one’s eating behavior is out of control.
There are other eating disorders as well, including, but not limited to:
- Purging disorder
- Night eating syndrome
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
- Rumination disorder
Eating Disorder Care Options
When someone decides that they would like to pursue treatment for their eating disorder, they have many options to look at. The options available depend on the severity of the disorder and may depend on what is decided by both the individual and their healthcare provider together. The levels of care available are as follows:
- Outpatient care. This level of care means that you can return home after you have taken part in a treatment session. This is typically a level of care for those who are still able to function in settings such as school or work, or those who have made progress in their recovery journey. This step means that the individual doesn’t need daily monitoring.
- Partial hospitalization. This level of care is a step up from outpatient care in that it is intended for those in recovery who may need daily monitoring, such as those who take part in purging or fasting daily. Those at this level of recovery have had their disorder affect their ability to function on a daily basis. However, they are not at immediate risk.
- Residential care. This level of care is for people who need longer term monitoring to help them recover from their eating disorder, and haven’t responded to the first two care options outlined above. Patients live in a facility around the clock for a set amount of time.
- Inpatient hospitalization. This level of care is for people who are experiencing a medical emergency due to their eating disorder, such as suicidal ideation, unstable vital signs, worsening symptoms, or other complications. The hospital is meant to stabilize the critical condition. Usually, the patient is then recommended a treatment program such as the ones above that fits their needs upon discharge.
Therapy Options for Eating Disorders
Within the care programs outlined above, patients in recovery from eating disorders will very likely take part in one of the many kinds of therapy that are available. Therapy is an extremely helpful tool in the recovery process, as it has the potential to completely reframe unhealthy thought patterns that lead to low self-esteem. Therapy can also help clients recover from trauma and identify mental health diagnoses, which can lead to narrowing down other specific recovery strategies that can lead to overall healing. Some possible types of therapy that may be used in eating disorder treatment are outlined below.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) — This type of therapy teaches individuals new coping and relationship skills, which can help those with eating disorders deal with stressors in their life that stem from strong negative feelings or stressors that come from relationships. This type of therapy has been proven to be helpful in particular for bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder.
Enhanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-E) — This type of therapy is known as one of the most effective treatments when it comes to helping those with eating disorders, as it can help almost all that it is used with. It can be used for both younger and adult patients, as well as those receiving day treatments or residential treatments. Part of the effectiveness is that it is highly individualized, so it doesn’t run by a standard rulebook that each patient inside which each patient is supposed to fit. Instead, the patient’s own problems determine how the treatment goes.
Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT) — The purpose of this type of therapy is to improve the flexibility of one’s thinking. CRT is most effective for those with anorexia nervosa. Some strategies used with CRT include games and puzzles or other activities. Those with anorexia may be treated through CRT by experiencing different food groups and navigating the emotions of weight changes through the lens of positive health benefits.
Psychodynamic Psychotherapy — This type of therapy focuses on where emotional suffering stems from. The purpose is for someone to self-reflect with the assistance of the therapist to identify needs and wants that are unresolved in one’s life, as well as problematic patterns. The goal of this type of therapy is to understand the cause of one’s eating disorder. By understanding the cause, one can begin to address it.
Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) — This type of therapy is particularly helpful for individuals who are struggling with binge eating disorder or bulimia. ITP focuses on disorders in the context of social or interpersonal relationships through the lens of four “problem areas”: interpersonal deficit, role disputes, role transitions, and grief. The idea is that each of these areas contribute in some way to the eating disorder, and by developing strategies to address them, your communication and interpersonal skills will improve, and your symptoms will begin to reduce.
Family-Based Treatment — This type of therapy is typically used in an outpatient setting for children who have eating disorders. Studies show that it is highly effective and faster acting than many other treatments. FTB views parents as experts on their child and as a part of the solution to the treatment of the eating disorder rather than the cause or part of the problem. The eating disorder is viewed as an external force. There are several stages to this type of therapy that are supervised by the therapist or doctor.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) — This type of therapy focuses on individuals changing their actions to better align with their core beliefs, as opposed to changing their feelings overall. This type of therapy helps someone accept all feelings that they may experience, even if they are negative. This is an effective treatment for eating disorders because it affirms one’s sense of self in a positive way, while an eating disorder may be a negative link to self-image.
Other Eating Disorder Treatment Options
When in treatment for an eating disorder, you might find that your therapist or other provider may discuss other treatment options for you. These treatments may include medication, such as antidepressants or medicine to help with anxiety. There also may be treatments to help your body heal physically and get back the nutrients it needs. All of these things are intended to improve your life and help you get back your health both mentally and physically.
Eating Disorder Resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, help is out there, and you are not alone. While anyone can experience an eating disorder, there are certain groups that are frequently more at risk than others. It’s good to know if you or your friends fall into one of these categories for awareness’ sake. However, even if you don’t, if you have concerns for yourself or someone else, it’s okay to reach out for help.
Below are resources you can use to reach out for help, or to pass along to someone you know.
National Eating Disorder Helpline (NEDA)
NEDA is one of the most important resources to be aware of. This helpline offers support and resources for those who may be struggling with eating disorders. They also offer treatment options for those reaching out for help. It’s important to note that, while they cannot provide advice or ongoing support, the volunteers are trained to listen to your concerns and provide information, such as where you can find professional help.
There are several ways to reach out to NEDA, which are laid out below.
Crisis Text Line
- If you need immediate help, text “NEDA” to 741741. This text line is available 24/7 for those struggling with mental health and who are in crisis.
- (800) 931-2237
- Hours of operation: Mon-Thurs, 11am-9pm ET. Friday 11am-5pm ET.
- Translation services available.
- Click “chat now” on the NEDA website.
- Hours of operation: Mon-Thurs 9am-9pm ET. Friday 9am-5pm ET.
- (800) 931-2237
- Hours of operation: Mon-Thurs 3pm-6pm ET. Friday 1pm-5pm ET.
The NEDA website states that if you call the helpline and they are not currently available, feel free to leave a message, and they will call back promptly.
NEDA closes on certain holidays, which you can review on their website.
988: National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
Remember, if you are are experiencing thoughts of suicide or feeling that you might hurt yourself, the national suicide hotline is another resource available to help you. This resource is available 24/7. You can reach the hotline by dialing 988. Another option is you can also call 1-800-273-8255, which is their previous number. Both will get you to the same place.
The suicide prevention lifeline is also available 24/7 via text message. Simply text HOME to 741741.
The lifeline also has an online chat option.
Eating Disorder Resources for the LGBTQ+ Community
- The Emily Program — This resource is intended to support those in the LGBTQ+ community who have eating disorders by providing them with resources on recovery and treatment. They also provide education for allies who want to support those in their life experiencing these issues. They have virtual treatment options available in a few states as well as in-person treatment options.
- ANAD — ANAD is an LGBTQ+ friendly nonprofit that provides free peer support services to individuals that may be struggling with eating disorders. They are staffed by volunteers who have also experienced an eating disorder and the recovery journey.
Eating Disorder Resources for Women and Girls
- WithinHealth — This resource discusses statistics and trends regarding eating disorders in teenage girls. This may be helpful for parents who are concerned about their children and want to find out how to help them and what they need to look out for. It discusses signs of eating disorders and treatment options, as well as other important topics.
- Office on Women’s Health — This government website has facts about women’s health, including mental health, which also includes information on eating disorders. This website is also an excellent place to get a variety of other health information as well.
Eating Disorder Resources for Bullying Victims
- NEDA — This resource has a section with information on the harmful effects of bullying and how it can cause eating disorders. There are links to related articles on the site, facts and statistics, myth-busters, resources for treatments, brochures, and more.
- Stop Bullying — While not strictly related to eating disorders, this national resource was created to stop bullying. If bullying is the cause of eating disorders, then stopping it in its tracks may be helpful for the recovery of bullying victims, and prevent others in the future from experiencing the harmful effects. This website has facts and resources for parents, teachers, and kids on bullying.
Eating Disorder Resources for Athletes
- Running in Silence — This resource is a nonprofit intended to empower the athletic community to speak up about eating disorders so that athletes will reach out for help in order to achieve their potential. The resources on the site are for athletes themselves, coaches, and parents. There are also testimonials from people who have gone through eating disorders.
- Association for Applied Sport Psychology — This resource is intended to improve the prevention of eating disorders among athletes and increase awareness. They do so by providing those most involved in athletics (such as athletes, coaches, parents, sports admins, and more) with up-to-date information, signs of eating disorders, treatment options, case consultations, and more. Their goal is to work with organizations that have the athletes well-being in mind.