Eight Eating Disorder Treatments Backed By Science

More than 70 million people worldwide are diagnosed with bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa at some point in their lives. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder. Millions of people are diagnosed with this serious illness. Eating disorders have significant mortality and morbidity rates. Left untreated, eating disorders can cause a variety of serious health problems; including organ failure, gastrointestinal complications, dental problems, osteoporosis and respiratory issues.

Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders can be fatal without the right treatment. In fact, anorexia nervosa is one of the nation’s deadliest psychological conditions. It has the highest rate of death of any mental disorder, including schizophrenia and depression. One out of every five people with anorexia nervosa dies prematurely from complications related to the disease. People with anorexia nervosa are 56 times more likely to commit suicide than peers without the disorder. Fortunately, anorexia nervosa treatment centers can help a person with an eating disorder develop the tools needed to become fully recovered from an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa treatment approaches based on scientific research are considered the best when it comes to anorexia nervosa recovery.

Due to the risk of complications and severe health issues associated with eating disorders, finding a treatment backed by science is important. The type of treatment needed depends on the person’s particular disorder and hir or her symptoms, behaviors and co-occurring presentations. The most common eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa: Signs of anorexia nervosa include extreme food restriction and potentially, a very low body weight. The person may skip meals or refuse to eat certain food groups. They may have a distorted view of their body. People with anorexia tend to become preoccupied with food intake. They may engage in rituals surrounding eating, such as only eating foods in a particular order. Other symptoms of anorexia nervosa include an extreme fear of gaining weight or physical symptoms, such as electrolyte imbalances. Anorexia nervosa treatment centers focus on helping the person reduce restrictive behaviors and challenge distorted thoughts related to the disorder.
  • Bulimia nervosa: Bulimia nervosa involves repeated episodes of binge eating followed by episodes of purging. A person with bulimia may use laxatives, forced vomiting or excessive exercise to purge their body of calories after a binge. Bulimia nervosa side effects may include gastrointestinal issues, electrolyte imbalances, tooth decay and organ damage.
  • Binge eating disorder: Binge eating disorder involves consuming a large amount of food during a short period of time. The person may feel shame or embarrassment after binge eating episodes. They may also feel they cannot control their behaviors surrounding food. A person with binge eating disorder may try to hide their behaviors.

Eating disorder treatment can help a person understand the underlying causes of the disorder, better manage their symptoms, maintain their physical health and address other issues that may have been caused by the disorder.

Treatment usually begins with a medical and psychiatric assessment. A medical evaluation will examine items, such as medical history and complications; blood work, bone density and other medical tests may be run to gather additional medical information. This initial assessment will help the treatment team develop the individual’s treatment plan. Below are some common treatment modalities utilized when working with an individual with an eating disorder.

1. Psychotherapy

One framework for psychotherapy work is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, which is an evidenced-based treatment modality commonly utilized during eating disorder treatment. CBT can be used to treat all eating disorders from bulimia nervosa to binge eating disorder. CBT can be a core treatment method in an effective eating disorder treatment program.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the idea that a person’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all connected. People with eating disorders may have distorted beliefs about themselves and their bodies. They may have highly critical ideas that lead to eating disordered behaviors, such as food restriction. The goal of CBT is to help individuals change the distorted thoughts and beliefs that lead to disordered behaviors. Challenging critical, distorted thoughts helps change emotions that lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as purging and binging.

Another treatment modality, also backed by science, is acceptance and commitment therapy or ACT. Acceptance and commitment therapy states that attempts to suppress unwanted internal thoughts, body sensations and emotions are what cause maladaptive behaviors, such as purging and binging. Acceptance and commitment therapy helps the person observe and accept these internal events; therefore, decreasing maladaptive coping mechanisms such as binging, food restriction and excessive exercise. It may also help a person develop more flexible thoughts and behaviors and eliminate rigid ways of thinking and behaving.

2. Co-Occurring Disorders Treatment

Many people diagnosed with an eating disorder may also have a co-occurring mental disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders or anxiety. Approximately 95 percent of people diagnosed with bulimia nervosa also have a co-occurring mental disorder. Approximately 64 percent of people with bulimia meet the diagnostic criteria for three or more co-occurring disorders. More than 56 percent of patients with anorexia nervosa also have another mental disorder. Co-occurring disorders, such as mood disorders, can also be common in people diagnosed with binge eating disorders.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders that co-occurs with eating disorders. As many as 69 percent of patients with anorexia nervosa meet the diagnostic criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder. An important part of anorexia nervosa recovery is addressing and treating the co-occurring disorder.

3. Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is one of the common modalities used to treat anxiety disorders. Since anxiety can also be a core symptom of eating disorders, exposure therapy can be helpful in the treatment of eating disorders. People with eating disorders are often fearful of gaining weight and of situations that involve food.

Exposure therapy works by gradually exposing the person to situations that trigger negative responses. Through exposure therapy, the person is gradually able to handle situations that involve food while managing his or her eating disorder symptoms. The person is supported throughout exposure therapy so they can safely cope with the emotions that may arise during the process.

4. Nutritional Therapy

Nutritional therapy is an integral part of eating disorder treatment. As supported by scientific studies, nutritional counseling and support can lead to improved outcomes for people with eating disorders. Nutritional therapy aims to help the person develop a sustainable and balanced relationship with food; learning to eat in order to maintain the body’s nutritional needs. It can also support individuals with eating disorders in learning how to listen to and trust their body’s internal cues for hunger and fullness.

Nutritional therapy can help a person with bulimia nervosa stabilize their weight by decreasing cycles of binging and purging. It can also help the person regulate and maintain electrolyte levels, which often become imbalanced due to frequent episodes of binging and purging.

Nutritional therapy is also vital in anorexia nervosa recovery. It supports the person during weight restoration with the goal of reaching and maintaining the appropriate body weight for their height. Individuals learn how to address food-related behaviors and develop a more adaptive approach to nutrition.

5. Psychoeducation

Psychoeducation can help people better understand the root cause of their disorder. Psychoeducation has been found to reduce unhealthy eating patterns among those with eating disorders. It fosters growth and understanding which can lead to behavioral change. Psychoeducation helps the person learn the causes of the eating disorder and how these thoughts impact their behaviors. Individuals learn about the impact maladaptive thoughts can have on their behaviors. Recognizing the problem can help the person adopt better coping strategies and behaviors in line with recovery.

Psychoeducational approaches to eating disorders may involve family or groups. The person may attend cooking groups to learn how to prepare nutritious meals. Family psychoeducation might include educating family members about the eating disorder and teaching them how to identify the signs and symptoms.

6. Family Therapy

Family therapy is an essential element in eating disorder treatment programs. Numerous research studies have found family therapy to be one of the most effective forms of treatment for eating disorders.

A person’s behavior does not occur in a vacuum. Every person is influenced by forces outside of themselves, including their immediate family. Family therapy works by helping the person learn how family influences impact their behavior and how the family unit as a whole has impacted the eating disorder.

Family therapy helps the entire family learn to communicate and manage conflict in a way that supports their loved one’s eating disorder recovery. Family therapy can include the impacted individual, their immediate family members or others in their close support network.

7. Movement Therapy

Movement therapy is another scientifically backed eating disorder treatment modality. For a person with an eating disorder, developing an adaptive relationship with movement can be a challenge. Physical activity is an integral part of a person’s overall health and, in the right circumstances, can help prevent a variety of physical problems. However, people with eating disorders often misuse exercise as part of the eating disordered behavior. They may engage in extreme exercise or work out for extended periods of time. The person may develop compulsive rituals related to working out. While in treatment, the individual will develop a more balanced relationship with movement and their body. *Movement should only be introduced once the individual is cleared by a medical professional.

8. Relapse Prevention

Eating disorders are chronic and complex illnesses that may come and go. It takes time to become fully recovered from an eating disorder and it can be common to experience relapses of eating disorder symptoms along the road to recovery.

Even considering all the evidence-based treatment methods we have addressed, relapse prevention remains a pivotal practice throughout the individual’s recovery. Relapse prevention can help a person:

  • Identify emotions and events that trigger eating disorder behaviors
  • Develop coping mechanisms to deal with stress and anxiety
  • Identify a support network that can provide help when needed
  • Sustain a more balanced approach to movement and food

Becoming fully recovered from an eating disorder is entirely possible. It happens every day for people with eating disorders. The key is to reach out for help. Anorexia nervosa treatment centers can help you restore health, balance and purpose to your life.