Living with an eating disorder comes with many challenges. The good news is that there are plenty of treatment options available.
While each person’s experience of an eating disorder is unique, managing an eating disorder is never something you have to take on alone.
Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and body types, so finding the right tools that are suited and accessible to you can make all the difference.
If you have an eating disorder, or suspect that you might, know that help is available and you have options.
In this article, we’ll talk about common treatments, how to access them, and tips for managing an eating disorder in your day-to-day life.
Keep in mind that an important first step toward truly addressing and treating an eating disorder is diagnosis. Talking with a professional can help open a range of treatment options for you.
The major treatments for eating disorders include:
- eating disorder clinics
- building self-care routines
While a single approach — such as therapy — might work for one person, using a combination of approaches might work best for another. The important thing is finding the approach that works best for you.
Treatments might also differ depending on the specific condition you’re managing, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
The treatment of eating disorders may be provided by a variety of specialists, including:
- internal medicine physicians
- clinical social workers
Talk therapy, also called psychotherapy, is a common treatment option for eating disorders.
With eating disorders, it can become hard to separate healthy behaviors from those that are causing you psychological or physical harm. A therapist can help you separate healthy from harmful behaviors.
Here, you’ll talk with a mental health professional about your experiences. They can help you determine factors that are causing distress, then help you take steps toward solving them.
Types of therapy for eating disorders include but aren’t limited to:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
- dialectal behavior therapy (DBT)
- acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- family-based treatment (FBT)
As you can tell from their names, each type of treatment offers a different approach in helping you deal with the challenges that come with an eating disorder.
Doing some research into the specific methods can help you decide which is best for you. If you’re not sure, you can talk with a doctor or mental health professional who can help you decide.
There are no specific medications to treat eating disorders. However, some medications can help treat co-occurring conditions. In doing so, they may address the psychological and biological factors that contribute to disordered eating patterns.
Medications can help you to manage anxiety, depression, substance use, and other mental health conditions that might occur alongside an eating disorder.
For many people, these conditions are closely linked with disordered eating. The most effective treatment plans will address all relevant conditions.
Eating disorder clinics
Eating disorder clinics, otherwise known as treatment centers, can also be a course of action. Many levels of care exist to meet the varying needs of people with eating disorders.
The levels of care can each play a different role in the treatment process depending on your symptoms. They include:
- outpatient programs, such as weekly therapy sessions
- partial hospitalization, for when you may benefit from having a care team more closely check in on your medical or psychological health
- residential programs, for when partial hospital and outpatient treatments aren’t effective
- inpatient care, for people who need acute medical or psychological care, such as in the case of medical complications or suicidal thoughts or actions
Because eating disorders can also have medical consequences, it can be wise to have your treatment provider address the other health complications that are a result of your eating disorder.
Dietitians can provide useful information about proper nutrition and also monitor your body to make sure that you’re healthy enough to remain at your current level of treatment.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, you’re not alone. Help is available right now:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Not in the United States? Find a helpline in your country with Befrienders Worldwide.
As cliché as it might sound, self-care is another important measure you can take to treat your eating disorder.
For people experiencing anorexia or bulimia specifically, it might be a good idea to take a break from the unrealistic body images you may see online.
Taking care of yourself can also be as simple as trying whatever you can to be kinder to yourself. It’s easier said than done, but noticing your harmful inner monologue can be an important action to take in trying to gear your brain to take a more self-loving approach.
Not every eating disorder is the same. So, as you might expect, not every treatment is exactly the same either.
The most common variants of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Each warrants its own approach.
Anorexia is an eating disorder that’s often characterized by significant weight loss, or body weight below the minimum standard for age, sex, and physical health. It also involves an intense fear of weight gain and a dysmorphic or distorted perception of body image.
In some cases, anorexia can have a range of physical consequences, such as:
- cardiac problems
- bone loss
- kidney problems
Treatments for anorexia may involve treating or preventing medical complications.
Read more: Treatment for anorexia
Like anorexia, bulimia often involves low self-esteem or a hyper-focus on body image. Purging is more specific to bulimia and has its own physical effects.
Over time, health implications specific to bulimia can include tooth decay, inflamed glands near the esophagus, and ulcers. So, treatment for bulimia has to account for the physical and psychological differences of this eating disorder from its variants.
Read more: Treatment for bulimia
Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder is another common eating disorder. It’s associated with a loss of control when eating and repetitive episodes of overeating that are followed by feelings of shame.
The health implications of this condition vary. They can include:
- nutritional deficiency
- dry skin
- high blood pressure
Your doctor should take these factors into account during treatment.
Read more: Treatment for binge eating disorder
Navigating an eating disorder isn’t something you need to do alone.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides a search tool to help you find local treatment options.
There are many resources that you can turn to for additional support:
- NEDA operates an eating disorder online chat and helpline in the United States. You can call or text 800-931-2237.
- NEDA also provides a blog and community resources, including forums, to help you connect with others who are going through something similar.
- The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) offers a helpline, treatment directory, and links to support groups.
For more interpersonal support, you can turn to the blog Beat.
Once you’ve decided to start treatment, you may experience many emotions going into your first appointment.
Feeling nervous, vulnerable, or overwhelmed is completely normal. There are certain measures you can take before and during your first session to make sure that you get the most out of your treatment despite the emotions you may be feeling at the time.
Know what to expect
Knowing what to expect from your first appointment can ease the anxiety that comes with seeking help.
During your first appointment, you’ll likely talk about your eating habits, relationship with body image and food, and perhaps undergo some level of physical examination, so try as best you can to be ready for this.
If you feel anxious at any point, take a deep breath. Try to remember why you’re seeking treatment in the first place. It can also help to set goals in your mind of what you’d like to get out of the session.
Recognize your progress
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. You’ve made it far enough to consider treatment options, and that’s something to feel proud of.
Since this process may be unfamiliar to you, it’s completely expected that you’ll have questions.
Here are some example questions you can ask your healthcare professional in your first appointment:
- How much experience do you have with treating eating disorders?
- How long does each session last?
- What happens during a typical session?
- How do you treat co-occurring conditions like depression and anxiety?
- Which other professionals will be involved in my treatment?
- What are the benefits and risks associated with this treatment?
- What role will family members or friends play in the treatment process?
Remember, too, that you’re completely entitled to knowing the details of your treatment. If at any point along the process you want further clarification, feel free to ask your treatment provider.
During your treatment process, there are certain day-to-day strategies you can implement to help manage your eating disorder:
- Take time to recognize intrusive thoughts about eating and body image. Try acknowledging the thought: “I acknowledge that I’m having an eating disorder thought.” Hold the thought gently and compassionately. This might just take away some of its power.
- Try writing down recurring negative thoughts. Then, in a second column, write affirmations that reframe those thoughts in a positive or different way. This two-column approach can help you challenge and break harmful thought patterns.
In addition, it can help to reach out to a friend for support. Supportive friends and family can make you feel heard and less alone, which will help you in your process toward recovery.
It can be especially tough to manage an eating disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read about ways to manage an eating disorder during quarantine here.
If you feel ready to talk about treatment, there are many ways to reach out to a healthcare team. You might want to go to a primary care doctor, who can put you in touch with someone who specializes in eating disorders or mental health.
There are many guides, testimonies, and studies that you can turn to online. Ultimately, only you and your treatment team will be able to identify the next steps to take together. Recovery begins here.
You can check out Psych Central’s Find a Therapist page to find an eating disorder professional near you.