What Can I Expect from a Residential Treatment Center for Eating Disorders?

All residential treatment centers offer a slightly different experience, but the care they provide is similar in many ways. Residential eating disorder treatment provides the highest level of medical care outside of a hospital setting, for example, and many use similar residential eating disorder treatment techniques. The philosophy certainly differs from facility to facility, but the goal is the same; to help their charges recover from eating disorders.

There are many important differences, though. Some residential eating disorder treatment centers provide gentle, personalized treatment under the care of doctors, psychiatrists, nutritionists, and counselors. Some others might have a more faith-based or 12-step philosophy. None of these is necessarily wrong, although evidence-based, specialized treatment is proven as effective.

About 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States have eating disorders. They are among the most prevalent mental health disorders for Americans. While men can develop eating disorders, women are more likely to experience them, although as the stigma against seeking help for mental health issues and eating disorders in particular for men recedes, more men are admitting that they need help. This means that although some programs are female-only, treatment programs that can help all genders are more available than ever.

Residential treatment focuses on the special needsthatpeople with eating disorders experience and provides more care options than outpatient or day treatment programs. In general, residential treatment can help more advanced or severe cases or ones that include complications – for example, the National Eating Disorders Association (​NEDA) says that residential treatment is appropriate for medically or psychiatrically unstable clients. This might include co-occurring disorders like anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, or substance abuse as well as medical complications like malnutrition, anemia, physical injuries due to excessive exercise.

What to Expect Before Deciding to Go Into Treatment

There are many different kinds of eating disorders, and it’s not always easy to know what to look for. The simplest way to consider the issues is to ask, “Are my eating habits having a negative effect on my life?” This might mean dangerous weight loss from anorexia-related food restrictions, purging behaviors caused by bulimia nervosa, binge eating episodes and weight gain due to binge eating disorder, or even a weight fluctuation because of frequent dieting and negative body image. It can be exceedingly difficult to admit this to yourself; in fact, many methods of treatment focus on being able to objectively assess your own eating habits.

You should speak to someone close to you that you trustas the first step, like a parent, sibling, or spouse. They can listen and provide support, and help you find a therapist that can make a diagnosis. These conversations might be hard for you – eating disorders have a way of making people think they are necessary parts of life. It takes a lot of courage to reach out for help.

When you do decide to change your life for the better, it’s time to call an eating disorder treatment facility. Your therapist or doctor might recommend one, or you might choose to do your own research. When you call in, the center will have dedicated admissions specialists ready to help. They’ll ask you about your diagnosis, or if you haven’t been diagnosed, they’ll ask a series of questions to assess what you’re struggling with and how the facility can help. These might touch on your eating habits, body image, and changes in weight. It’s important to be honest – every treatment program is personalized to the client, so accurate information is needed. After you’ve decided to go into treatment transportation to the facility and insurance/payment details will be discussed. The admissions specialist will be your point of contact to finalize the details.

What to Expect on Your First Day

Compassionate professionals will guide you through the recovery process. Soon after you arrive for residential eating disorder treatment, you will meet several key people. A nurse will perform a physical assessment and order lab tests, for example, and a doctor will perform a medical examination, review complications of eating disorders, and address any medical conditions that may influence treatment. You might also consult with a business office representative to confirm payment, insurance benefits, and other financial details.

You will also meet your treatment team that may consist of psychiatrists, therapists, and dietitians. This individualized attention focuses on seeing each client as a human first, with unique challenges and gifts, and who will take a unique journey towards recovery.

The first day typically includes a tour of the facilities so you know where things are and feel more comfortable. This includes your room, the movement center, kitchen, dining room, therapy rooms, and the grounds. While in residential treatment, you’ll stay at the house, so the surrounding areas aren’t as important, but in the later stages of treatment, you may get opportunities to go on excursions. Local restaurants or entertainment opportunities might be discussed at that time.

Perhaps most importantly, you’ll also meet the other clients at the facility. You’ll be spending a lot of time in group therapy with these folks, so it’s always good to acclimatize and get to know them as soon as possible.

What to Expect from Residential Eating Disorder Treatment

Residential treatment centers can offer a wide range of daily experiences. At Oliver-Pyatt, we specialize in medical and psychiatric care, so daily medical assessments and monitoring help evaluate your progress and keep you on the road to recovery. Eating disorders don’t happen from 9 to 5, so 24-hour access to psychiatrists and other care professionals allows you to get help at any time of day or night – whenever you need it.

You can expect weekly medical appointments to assess and monitor your progress, and to identify any complications before they become a larger problem. Weight is also monitored regularly, as many treatment plans require a weight restoration program through nutritious eating. This is not only for clients with anorexia nervosa but for all clients. A HAES (healthy at every size) philosophy teaches that the goal of intuitive eating is to eat nutritionally and in a satisfying way. It’s the cornerstone of a restored relationship with food and eating.

·         Therapy

  • Thorough medical and psychiatric management through daily therapy sessions helps you make consistent progress towards your goals. Because of the complexity of eating disorders, residential eating disorder treatment is often a multifaceted approach that includes different types of therapy.
  • Daily group therapy sessions provide opportunities to connect with others and to discuss solutions for common problems. Group therapy can be applied to various forms of therapy from art therapy to CBT (more below). It is a powerful recovery tool; many of our clients point to the bonding and friendships formed through group therapy as the basis of their recovery.
  • Other daily therapies may include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that addresses many of the behavioral issues associated with eating disorders. This form of talk therapy trains clients to objectively see how their emotions affect their behaviors. Learning to experience their emotions without acting upon them helps them to avoid disordered eating patterns.
  • High-frequency individual therapy sessions throughout the stay help guide you through your personalized treatment plan. Every client’s focus during their 30 or more days of residential treatment is processing their emotions and finding their recovered self. The trained therapists at the facility are there to facilitate this.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help you open up to unpleasant feelings and react to those feelings appropriately; dialectical behavioral skills training provides new skills to manage painful emotions and decrease conflict. Body image therapy can help you stop blaming yourself or your body, and recognize the complex body image issues that may have led to the development of an eating disorder.
  • Some residential eating disorder treatment centers offer specialized approaches to therapy, such as expressive art therapy or music therapy. These supplemental forms of therapy are often among our clients’ favorite activities. They do not require formal training or ability – no one expects you to be Mozart or Frida Kahlo! Instead, they serve as a way for recovering individuals to express themselves and gain a new perspective on their thoughts and feelings.

·         Nutrition

  • You can expect a thoughtfully implemented meal plan based on your specific nutritional medical needs and your personal preference. Participating in pre- and post-meal process groups before and after meals can help build awareness of internal cues regarding your hunger and fullness.
  • Depending on the programs offered, you may learn mindful eating, which helps you develop a balanced and sustainable relationship with the food you eat. Meals are often eaten in groups, providing moral support and a shared experience for all the clients at the center. This approach to daily exposure therapy is psychologically gentle, yet effective.
  • Regular individual nutrition therapy with a registered dietitian can help you build a sustainable approach to eating. Participating in weekly cooking groups, with staff support, teaches you how to prepare nutritious meals. This proves useful after residential treatment comes to an end since meal planning and food preparation are keys to maintaining a regular eating schedule.

·         Relapse Prevention

  • Towards the end of your residential eating disorder treatment, you can expect to participate in relapse prevention that helps you avoid “slips.” Relapse prevention in residential eating disorder treatment helps you develop coping strategies you can use during times of crisis.
  • One of the biggest factors in long-term recovery is an available support system after the individual discharged from residential treatment. Of course, the family is closest to them, so family therapy is considered essential. This can include sessions with both the client and the family present, working to explore their emotions and relationships with each other. Family members can also partake in educational sessions about how they can support their loved ones after treatment ends.
  • Our program and many others offer an alumni program to help support their clients’ recoveries long after treatment ends. It’s a sad fact that eating disorders are rarely extinguished completely in one shot. Relapses are common, and having a support system of peers can help prevent them or lift you back up after one happens. Occasionally alumni programs are conducted in person, but especially after the pandemic, online groups are more common.
  • Sometimes, after graduating from residential programs, an individual needs more care than an alumni group can provide. In these cases “step-down” programs like IOP or PHP are available. These treatment programs provide regular therapy sessions that continue the work done in residential. They are usually available on the same insurance plan as the residential program.

Do Your Research and Get Ready for Recovery

The best way to learn about what life at a residential eating disorder treatment center is like is to take a tour. A video tour is, of course, the most convenient way to do so, but you can often arrange an in-person tour as well (make sure you check with the admissions specialists about COVID protocols first). Recovery is a big step – don’t take it blindly. The more prepared you are for a residential stay, the easier your recovery will be. When you’re ready, reach out and hold on – a recovered life is within your grasp.


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.