If you have any concerns about obsessive thoughts and behavior with regard to eating, exercising, body image, and weight control, better to be on the side of caution and speak with your doctor or mental health care provider right away. Even if your condition doesn’t feel serious, stepping up at the right moment to ask for help can prevent symptomatic behaviors from escalating and becoming serious and even life-threatening medical conditions, regardless of how long you’ve struggled with body image and food-related issues.

How do I get the best help for an eating disorder?

Make an appointment with your primary care physician or a mental health professional as soon as possible. To prepare for your appointment, write down the eating, purging, exercising habits and/or thoughts that concern you, and how frequently they occur. In order for you and your health care provider to recognize potentially dangerous patterns, it helps to keep all of this information in one place, in the form of a daily diary that includes dates, times of day, and situations when disturbing thoughts and behaviors occur. Also remember to write down any questions you have for your doctor, along with any pertinent information, such as medical history and medications you are currently taking.

What will happen at the doctor’s office?

Your doctor is likely to ask you about your eating and exercising habits, your family’s medical history, and your thoughts about your body image. The doctor may complete a physical exam as well to rule out other medical conditions. You may also receive a referral to a mental health professional who can conduct a more in-depth assessment and determine whether you fit the criteria for a diagnosis and how you can best be helped. You should always feel free to ask any questions you have about treatment options that may be best for you.

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What treatment options are available?

There are multiple treatment options for eating disorders, depending on the nature and severity of the symptoms. Most treatment recommendations, however, include some type of psychotherapy and nutrition education. In more severe cases, medication and sometimes in-patient enrollment in a specialized treatment facility may be recommended.

Professional counseling can help you examine the thoughts and behaviors that lead to your negative body image and eating behaviors. Since different types of people may respond better to different types of therapy, there is no one type that is most effective for everyone. Psychotherapists often draw from several different therapeutic approaches while working on a treatment plan. These are the most common types of therapies used to treat eating disorders:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is normally prescribed as the first line of treatment. CBT is a form of short-term therapy that focuses on the distorted thinking patterns and emotions that drive disordered eating behavior.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy focuses more on changing behaviors than on changing thinking and feeling patterns.
  • Cognitive remediation therapy focuses on perfectionism and other rigid thinking patterns to improve the treatment of adults with anorexia.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy focuses on changing behaviors by developing new habits through mindfulness, coping skills, and emotional regulation.

Additionally, family-based treatment (FBT) has been used effectively to promote healthy eating and restore normal weight in adolescents with anorexia or bulimia. FBT is a home-based program that involves all family members.

Interpersonal psychotherapy has been shown to help those with bulimia and binge eating disorder by focusing generally on improving interpersonal relationship issues and communication. Healthier interpersonal relationships and functioning within those relationships has been found to reduce symptoms of these eating disorders.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy aims to get to the root of the problem, holding that you cannot permanently diminish the symptoms of an eating disorder without resolving the underlying causes and issues that drive the behavior.

If malnutrition or other serious complications are evident, your doctor or psychotherapist may recommend in-patient treatment at a hospital, clinic, or eating disorders treatment center. In-patient treatment provides round-the-clock care, nutrition interventions, and individual counseling to promote good mental and physical health.

Are there other treatment options?

Group therapy may be recommended along with individual psychotherapy. Your physician may also prescribe antidepressant, anti-anxiety or anti-psychotic medications to treat co-existing mental health issues and also help minimize the stress and symptoms that promote unhealthy eating habits, as well as reduce the urge to binge-eat or purge food. While no medication can cure an eating disorder, it’s important to speak with your doctor about whether or not this option might be a helpful intervention.

Anyone who has struggled with disordered eating can benefit from learning the basics of a healthy diet that will help them develop safe and wholesome eating habits that, in turn, will help them reach and maintain a healthier body weight. Registered dietitians, medical nutritionists, and nurses can help you with these goals.

Your health care providers may also suggest adjunctive therapies and activities, such as meditation and mindfulness instruction, yoga, dance or movement classes, journaling, or art therapy. These programs won’t cure an eating disorder, but they can help lower your stress levels, elevate your mood, and teach you to have a better sense of control over your life as you recover.

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See Part 1 of this story

Eating Disorders: Types and Symptoms

See Part 1

If you need help and you cannot get it from someone in your immediate support circle, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline toll-free at 1-800-931-2237.

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Last Updated: Aug 9, 2019