Types of Treatment for Eating Disorders

Across all ages and genders, over 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). People with eating disorders are also more likely to die than people with any other mental health issue, so learning about the types of therapies available and what help you or your loved one needs is essential. There is no one “right” approach for eating disorder treatment, but several therapies are widely used.

Eating Disorders: The Basics

Eating disorders can be broadly defined as harmful patterns of eating, possibly with bingeing and purging, spurred by psychological issues. There are several types of eating disorders, but anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are the most common:

  • Anorexia nervosa: This is when you don’t eat enough food to maintain a healthy body weight. People with anorexia usually cut down their food intake to extremes, and may fastidiously count calories, secretly throw food away or use drugs that affect appetite or metabolism. Despite being called thin, a sufferer believes they need to lose weight.
  • Bulimia nervosa: This is characterized by a cycle of bingeing and purging, whether through vomiting, using laxatives or exercising excessively. Anxiety, depression or other negative emotions lead to bingeing on high-fat, high-sugar or other unhealthy foods, and then guilt leads to purging in order to “counteract” the effect of the binge. The impacts on weight are less noticeable than with anorexia, but it is accompanied by similar negative emotions and a poor self-image.
  • Binge eating disorder: Binge eating disorder is closer to what you may think of when you imagine a food addiction (though it is different). Like in drug or alcohol addiction, the individual indulges throughout the day or in large quantities all at once (i.e. bingeing) as a method of coping with difficult emotions. He or she will often choose unhealthy food, and will struggle to diet successfully. This leads to weight gain, which then exacerbates the problems with emotional eating.

Types of Therapies for Eating Disorders

There are many types of therapies that can be useful in treating eating disorders, but unfortunately there is no one main recommended approach. This means it may take some time to find the right approach or (most likely) the combination of approaches that works best for you or your loved one.

  • Medications and medical observation: In many cases, eating disorders pose a physical as well as a psychological risk to the affected individual. A doctor may need to ensure that any weight gain or loss isn’t the result of a physical condition, and he or she will also need to address any serious health risks or consequences of the condition. Antidepressant medications are also used in some cases.
  • Talk therapy: Talking therapies are the most important type of treatment for eating disorders. These aim to address the underlying psychological cause for you or your loved one’s eating, and help him or her address any issues and learn healthier ways of coping with difficult emotions. One well-known example is cognitive behavioral therapy, which looks at how your thoughts and feelings influence your behavior. You may attend therapy individually, as a family or both.
  • Nutritional counseling: A dietician or nutritionist can work with you to ensure you maintain a healthy diet and get all of the nutrients you need. This is a long-term process, because habits aren’t easy to change, but is absolutely essential for most people with eating disorders.
  • Complementary and alternative therapies: Many of the types of therapies used for eating disorders fall under the group of complementary or alternative therapies. These include art therapy, adventure therapy, equine therapy and recreational therapy, and all can be valuable additions to other types of therapy.

Finding the Right Treatment for Eating Disorders

The best advice for choosing between the types of therapies available for eating disorders is to talk to your counselor or doctor about your options. In most cases, you’ll use some medical treatments, some talking therapies, nutritional counseling and some complementary approaches. Consider your options carefully, and you or your loved one can regain a healthy body image and move back to a healthy weight.


“Eating Disorder Treatment and Recovery” by Melinda Smith and Jeanne Segal



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