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How Are Eating Disorders Treated?: Types & Treatment Options

How Are Eating Disorders Treated?: Types & Treatment Options

What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are serious, biologically influenced medical conditions characterized by significant changes in eating habits and related thoughts and feelings. A preoccupation with food, body weight, or shape may indicate an eating disorder.1 Although many are concerned about their health, weight, or looks from time to time, some people become obsessed with weight loss, body weight or shape, and food intake control.2

Eating disorders can have a negative impact on a person’s physical and mental health. They can even be life-threatening in some circumstances. Each eating disorder has its own set of symptoms and diagnostic criteria.3 Below are the symptoms of six of the most common eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia is defined by an abnormally low weight and a strong desire to avoid gaining weight or overeating. Behavior associated with anorexia aims to prevent weight gain at all costs, frequently to the point of malnutrition. As a result, a person with anorexia will appear extremely thin, may have brittle hair and nails, and their skin can appear dry and yellowish, among other signs.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Binge eating followed by purging characterizes bulimia. When you have bulimia, you may feel guilty or powerless after consuming a significant amount of food. As a result, you attempt to vomit it up. Symptoms associated with bulimia include the usage of laxatives and over-exercising.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Binge eating disorder, or BED, is a condition in which you regularly overeat. One might also feel terrible about bingeing or as if it’s out of their control. Persons suffering from BED may eat long after full, even to the point of discomfort or nausea.
  • Pica: Pica is a disorder in which someone eats non-nutritive objects or substances not regularly consumed in society, like hair, chalk, and dirt.
  • Rumination Disorder: When one easily and regularly regurgitates food without having another medical or gastrointestinal disease, they are said to have rumination disorder. After regurgitation, one may chew and swallow the food again or spit it out. Bad breath is a sign of this eating disorder.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is comparable to anorexia. Both illnesses limit the amount and/or types of food eaten. However, unlike anorexia, ARFID does not involve any concern about body form or size or anxieties about being obese. Some signs of ARFID include refusal to eat certain foods and irrational fear of choking or vomiting.

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Levels of Care for Eating Disorders

Outpatient Treatment

  • This type of eating disorder therapy involves the individual going home after treatment4 at an outpatient eating disorder clinic. This level of care is frequently utilized for those who:
    • Do not require daily monitoring
    • Are doing well in school, work, or social settings
    • Are making progress in their rehabilitation

Outpatient programs vary in severity depending on the needs of the individual. For example, some programs may have sessions once or twice a week, while more intensive programs may have longer and more regular sessions.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP)

  • PHPs are more intensive than outpatient programs. A PHP usually consists of numerous hour-long sessions on most days of the week. They might be suggested for someone who:
    • Should be checked daily
    • Has an eating disorder that interferes with their capacity to function, but not in a way that puts them in danger.
    • Engages in practices such as bingeing, purging, or fasting daily

Residential Program

  • People enrolled in a residential treatment program live in a facility dedicated to treating eating disorders. These facilities provide round-the-clock monitoring and care for their residents. The severity of the patient’s eating disorder determines the amount of time spent in a residential program.This type ofeating disorder therapy program is frequently recommended for individuals who:Require daily supervision for their eating disorder Have not responded to outpatient or partial hospitalization treatment programs

Inpatient Program

  • This level of care necessitates a hospital stay. It’s for those who have an eating disorder and are experiencing a medical emergency, such as:
    • Unstable vital signs
    • Drastically worsened symptoms
    • Complications from their eating disorder or another underlying medical condition
    • Suicidal behavior or thoughts

Your condition will be stabilized during your stay in the hospital. However, an outpatient, partial hospitalization, or residential treatment will be advised once discharged.

Are Eating Disorder Treatments Covered by Insurance?

Athena Care is in-network with most major insurance plans. Filling out our free and confidential online insurance verification form is the quickest and easiest method to determine if insurance covers eating disorder testing, diagnosis, or treatment.

When you fill in our form below, a care coordinator will review your policy and thoroughly explain your options after you’ve completed the form. Rest assured, all submitted or discussed information is kept confidential.  

Eating Disorder Therapy Types

Treatments for eating disorders vary. Therefore, what works for one individual might not work for another. Fortunately, a variety of therapy for eating disorders can be used. It may involve trying a few different therapies until you find what works best for you.

Psychotherapy, medical treatment and monitoring, nutritional counseling, medications, or a combination of these approaches are all used to treat eating disorders. Registered dietitians and other specialists, like eating disorder therapists, will assist you in better understanding your eating disorder. In addition, they’ll help you to develop a plan to achieve and maintain healthier eating habits.

Below, we dive into some common eating disorder treatments in further detail:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT aims to identify the mental processes and beliefs contributing to your eating disorder. You’ll learn techniques to adjust and manage these thoughts and beliefs after identifying them.

Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT): The goal of CRT is to encourage big-picture thinking and mental flexibility. During CRT, a range of activities and assignments are used to help alleviate the common rigid thought patterns associated with anorexia nervosa. Some of those activities include drawing shapes, making motions with your dominant and non-dominant hands, and navigating a map in different ways.

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT): IPT treats eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating disorder. IPT examines your eating disorder in the context of your social and interpersonal connections. Your doctor will collaborate with you to determine how each of the four “problem areas” contributes to your eating disorder:

  • Interpersonal deficits – Feelings of isolation or a lack of close, rewarding connections are common examples
  • Role disputes – The result of a misalignment of expectations between oneself and one or more significant individuals in your life
  • Role transitions – Usually related to significant life transitions, such as moving out on your own for the first time, starting a new job, or entering a new relationship
  • Grief – Can include grief due to the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship.

A therapist will also work with you to identify strategies for improving your communication and interpersonal skills, which will help you reduce your symptoms.

Family-based treatment (FBT): The Maudsley Method is another name for this family therapy treatment. It’s frequently prescribed for children and teenagers who suffer from an eating disorder. According to research, involving family members in eating disorder therapy can increase positive outcomes, especially for adolescents. For example, they can assist you in completing tasks such as:

  • Preserving healthy eating habits
  • Regain and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Putting a stop to dangerous habits like binge eating and purging

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT is a technique for dealing with unpleasant emotions.

DBT teaches you how to change the behaviors related to your eating disorder. Binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa have all been studied and treated with DBT.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT encourages you to change your actions rather than your emotions or feelings. The behavior connected with mental health conditions stems from responses to unpleasant experiences such as worry or discomfort, according to an ACT principle.

People who go through ACT are urged to explore their core principles for themselves. They are then asked to set goals that will assist them in meeting these ideals. The goal is to accept all feelings, even the ones that are unpleasant, and to commit to adjusting your actions so that they are more in line with your core values.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR treatment is a well-known form of trauma therapy comprised of eight stages. With research validating its efficacy in helping people access and process traumatic memories and other negative life situations, it is thought that EMDR can also be used to treat a person’s negative relationship with food or body image. EMDR seeks to identify a possible origin of onset.5

Medications for Eating Disorders

Medication cannot cure an eating disorder.6 Medications are most successful when paired with psychological counseling. You may also require medication to address physical health problems caused by your eating disorder.

Antidepressants are the most common drugs used in treating eating disorders involving binge-eating or purging habits. However, a medical professional may prescribe other medications.

If you suffer from bulimia or binge eating problems, an antidepressant may be quite helpful.

Antidepressants can also help with the depression and anxiety commonly present alongside eating disorders.

Does Eating Disorder Treatment & Therapy Work?

When discussing the efficacy of eating disorder treatments, it’s vital to use caution when using the word “cure.” “Recovery” is a more accurate term to use.

Therapy for eating disorders seeks to provide you with skills and methods that you can use in your daily life to help you deal with your illness. You can attain recovery in this manner, with little to no symptoms. Relapse, however, is a common and possible occurrence for someone who has recovered from an eating disorder, and eating disorders do not go away on their own.

Additional research is necessary to determine the best possible treatment for each specific eating disorder. However, below are some initial findings:

According to a 2013 review of numerous methods of eating disorder therapy:7

  • For adults with anorexia nervosa, no single treatment method is the most beneficial. However, many persons with anorexia did benefit from therapy.
  • The most established therapies for binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT).
  • FBT is the most well-known treatment for children and adolescents with anorexia nervosa. It may also help people with bulimia nervosa.

In addition, a 2018 study8 of 145 women in an inpatient program with anorexia nervosa were given cognitive remediation therapy (CRT). Clinicians found this type of therapy to be effective as a supplemental treatment for anorexia nervosa, but more research is needed.

Furthermore, a 2020 study9 evaluated 99 women with residual eating disorder symptoms and body image issues. The women who received 12 sessions of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) had fewer symptoms than those who did not receive ACT.


  1. National Institute of Mental Health. “Eating Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders. Accessed 5 June 2022.
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. “Eating Disorders: About More Than Food.” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders. Accessed 5 June 2022.
  3. Petre, Alina M. “6 Common Types of Eating Disorders (and Their Symptoms).” Healthline, Healthline Media, 18 May 2022, www.healthline.com/nutrition/common-eating-disorders#-1.-Anorexia-nervosa.
  4. Seladi-Schulman, Jill, PhD. “Is Therapy an Effective Treatment for Eating Disorders?” Healthline, Healthline Media, 23 Nov. 2020, www.healthline.com/health/eating-disorder/therapy-for-eating-disorders#care-options.
  5. Balbo, M., et al. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and eating disorders: A systematic review.” American Psychological Association, Giovanni Fioriti Editore, Clinical Neuropsychiatry: Journal of Treatment Evaluation, Vol 14(5), Oct 2017, 321-329, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-51697-004.
  6. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Eating Disorder Treatment: Know Your Options.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), 14 July 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/in-depth/eating-disorder-treatment/art-20046234.
  7. Kass, Andrea E., et al. “Psychological Treatments for Eating Disorders.” Current Opinion in Psychiatry, vol. 26, no. 6, 2013, pp. 549–55. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1097/yco.0b013e328365a30e.
  8. Leppanen, Jenni, et al. “Impact of Cognitive Remediation Therapy on Neurocognitive Processing in Anorexia Nervosa.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 9, 2018. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00096.
  9. Fogelkvist, Maria, et al. “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Reduce Eating Disorder Symptoms and Body Image Problems in Patients with Residual Eating Disorder Symptoms: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Body Image, vol. 32, 2020, pp. 155–66. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.01.002.

If you suspect that you or someone you love suffers from mental health disorders, contact Athena Care today.

One of our friendly associates will help you get the help you need. Take this first step to feel better and take control. 

(615) 320-1155