Eating Disorder Treatment: What Are The Options?

Approximately 30 million people in the United States meet the criteria for a clinically significant eating disorder during their lifetime. However, the vast majority of people who have eating disorders are either never formally diagnosed or don’t seek anorexia nervosa treatment or bulimia nervosa treatment for their eating disorder. This is a truly unfortunate fact as eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

Becoming fully recovered from an eating disorder requires professional bulimia nervosa treatment or anorexia nervosa treatment. The sooner an individual gets help for an eating disorder the better, as early intervention has been shown to improve the chances of a successful recovery. Research suggests beginning bulimia nervosa treatment within the first three years of the onset is ideal for the best chance to achieve full recovery.

The First Steps Of Getting Treatment

Bulimia nervosa recovery is possible with treatment. The first steps in getting treatment for a loved one with an eating disorder is determining if, and to what extent, the person needs help. Learning about eating disorders is the best way to figure out if an evaluation or further consultation with a medical professional is needed.

Bulimia Nervosa Symptoms

Bulimia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening psychiatric disorder that involves a cycle of binging and purging. It is important for parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa so they can get their teen help, if needed. The signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Evidence of binge eating:One of the bulimia nervosa symptoms is binge eating. This behavior refers to eating large amounts of food in a small period of time. Signs of binge eating episodes might consist of finding empty food containers or wrappers, hoarding or hiding food or disappearance of large amounts of food.
  • Purging:Purging is one of the signs of bulimia nervosa. It refers to behaviors that are used to get rid of food after binge eating. Common methods of purging include using laxatives, excessive exercising or vomiting.
  • Overly concerned with body weight, size or shape:An individual with bulimia nervosa may be unhappy with their weight. Individuals with bulimia nervosa may have an average body weight; however, they may be dissatisfied with their size and talk frequently about wanting to lose weight.
  • Feeling guilt or shame after binging: Individuals that have bulimia nervosa often feel guilty or embarrassed after binging.

Anorexia Nervosa Symptoms

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by a distorted perception of body size or weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and an abnormally low body weight. People with anorexia nervosa can be obsessive about controlling their size and weight. They may use extreme behaviors to manage how much they weigh. Some of the signs of anorexia nervosa are:

  • Excessive weight loss over a short period of time
  • Very low body weight
  • Feeling dizzy or fainting
  • Preoccupation with food, calories or intake
  • Severely restricting food through fasting or restriction
  • Refusing to eat or skipping meals
  • Lying about food intake
  • Making excuses about not eating or denial about being hungry
  • Irritable or anxious, especially when unable to restrict food intake
  • In females, a lack of menstrual period or never starting menstruation

The Consequences Of Eating Disorders

Receiving a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa is the first step toward recovery from an eating disorder. An individual with an eating disorder might insist they are fine. In this case, a loved one’s first impulse might be to not seek treatment. However, it is essential if the parent or loved one believes the individual might have an eating disorder or if they are exhibiting signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa to seek treatment or guidance from a medical professional with experience treating eating disorders. The severity of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa side effects makes it important to learn about and, if required, enter treatment as early as possible. Here are some of the consequences of eating disorders:

  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Heart attacks
  • Heart failure
  • Liver damage
  • Sleep problems
  • Dental problems
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Kidney damage
  • Anemia
  • Heart arrhythmia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes

The Evaluation

In order to gather more information about eating disorders, eating disorder treatment and recovery it may be beneficial to schedule an evaluation and / or assessment with an eating disorder professional. It is important during this time that you let the physician or specialist know your concerns and that you discuss any eating disorder behaviors or patterns you are seeing in your loved one. An evaluation might consist of the following types of exams or tests:

  • Patient history:This might include information about your medical, social and psychological history and functioning.
  • Family history:The doctor or professional will likely ask about family history of eating disorders, psychiatric and medical illnesses.
  • Mental health assessment:Mental health problems can co-occur with eating disorders; as such, an evaluation should include an assessment of mental health functioning.
  • Medical exam:A physical exam usually includes weight, height and blood pressure measurements. The physician might also assess hair loss, skin health, pulse rate and other medical markers.
  • Laboratory testing:Some of the common laboratory tests for eating disorders include a complete metabolic profile, complete blood count (CBC), thyroid screening, creatinine levels, an electrocardiogram and other tests, as needed.

After medical screenings are completed, make sure to ask about all of the available treatment options to determine what will work best for you and your family.

Getting Treatment

After an individual has been diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or anorexia nervosa, the next step is getting treatment.

Treatment for bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders involves a combination of different types of interventions, such as psychological counseling, group therapies, life skills development training, nutritional counseling, activity or exercise therapy and comprehensive discharge planning and aftercare. If a client is diagnosed with another condition like depression or anxiety, residential or day treatment may also involve treatment for these conditions. Here is a closer look at the types of treatment for eating disorders.

Levels Of Care

The level of care refers to the intensity of treatment. The severity of the eating disorder, along with co-occurring conditions, would determine the appropriate level of care for each client. Professionals who specialize in eating disorders can determine the appropriate level of care for each client. Here are some of the most common levels of care for eating disorders:

Day Treatment / Intensive Outpatient Programming

Aside from individual sessions with an outpatient therapist, this level of care is the least restrictive. Individuals who participate in day treatment programs may see a therapist, nutritionist and other professionals several times per week. Intensive outpatient or day treatment is generally indicated for individuals who are medically and psychiatrically stable.

Residential Treatment

Residential treatment programs are ideal for individuals who need structured 24-hour care, with minimal medical and psychiatric supervision. People who participate in residential treatment live at the facility. They receive close monitoring and intensive therapy. Residential treatment allows individuals to complete the work to alleviate anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa side effects and provides medical, therapeutic and nutrition staff to support these individuals on the path to recovery.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is used particularly for people who are medically or psychiatrically unstable. These individuals may have complications due to existing medical problems, like diabetes or heart conditions. Those who present with acute health or suicide risk may also be referred for inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment can be an integral first step of bulimia nervosa recovery for people who need psychiatric or medical stabilization.


After participating in a residential treatment program or another eating disorder treatment program, a client will usually be referred to day treatment or a lower level of care. This allows for a seamless transition, allowing individuals to integrate back into the community, while maintaining the support to help them during bulimia nervosa recovery.

Types of Interventions for Eating Disorders

Aside from the various levels of care, there are different types of interventions that can help reduce bulimia nervosa side effects. These interventions may be used at a day treatment or residential treatment program. Often, each of these programs use a combination of different interventions and treatment.

Individual Psychotherapy

Individual psychotherapy allows people to address thoughts, feelings and behaviors that underlie the eating disorder symptoms. Individual psychotherapy can also help a person learn to deal with underlying issues that may contribute to the eating disorder, such as low self-esteem and interpersonal relationship problems. The therapist will help the individual learn how to cope with these issues in more adaptive ways.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This type of therapy helps individual people learn to manage cognitions and behaviors that contribute to eating disorder symptoms. It is very effective for individuals who react to strong emotions with extreme reactions. DBT includes several different components, such as mindfulness and emotional regulation training. DBT helps individuals learn to better deal with stress and conflict and emotion regulation.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is an integral part of eating disorder treatment. Family therapy can include the individual’s parents, siblings, grandparents and any other close supports. This treatment help families learn how to support their loved one’s recovery from an eating disorder. It also helps heal the family unit and teach family members how to cope with the eating disorder.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy can be beneficial for individuals with eating disorders. Among other issues, exposure therapy can be used to help clients overcome anxiety. This is achieved by assisting the client in gradually overcoming fears of specific objects or events. The goal is to help individuals learn to cope with intense feelings of anxiety without engaging in maladaptive behaviors.

Nutritional Counseling

Nutritional counseling is an integral part of treatment for eating disorders. Although people with eating disorders often have detailed and extensive knowledge about nutrition, they are often applying that knowledge in a way that hurts their health rather than helps it. Many people religiously adhere to nutrition information that is dangerous, misleading or inaccurate.

Nutritional counseling will help the individual establish a more mindful relationship with food, identify fears about food and learn the physical consequences of maladaptive eating behaviors. This type of therapy can help people learn to identify and listen to their body’s internal cues for hunger and fullness.

Exercise And Movement Therapy

Residential treatment programs often involve some type of movement therapy. This therapy can help the individual develop a healthy, individualized and balanced approach to movement. Activities like yoga, dance, swimming and walking are often part of the program. Clients learn to appreciate their bodies and use mindful movement to add enjoyment, rather than as a way to burn calories. Clients are taught how to balance activity for an overall healthy lifestyle.

Skills Training

Life skills training is often a part of residential treatment. Life skills activities can include learning about journaling, hygiene, relaxation skills, decision making and anger management skills. These skills are taught to help the individual learn to cope with stress and pressure outside of residential treatment. Skills training may take place in a group or individual setting.

Treatment For Co-Occurring Disorders

Depression, anxiety and substance abuse can co-occur with eating disorders. Residential treatment programs should be mindful of these co-occurring disorders and provide appropriate treatment plans.

The above interventions and treatments can help a client with an eating disorder on their path to recovery. One of the most important considerations when it comes to eating disorder treatment is that each intervention is tailored for the individual.


With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.