Eating Disorder Treatment Approaches

An eating disorder is a form of mental illness that can be life-threatening. If you have an eating disorder, you are obsessed with the foods that you consume and/or your weight. The most common eating disorders are: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and bingeing (binge eating). Although eating disorders can affect anyone, they appear to be more prevalent in women and typically originate during adolescences.

These types of psychological and physical disorders are especially dangerous because they not only affect your mental health they also interfere with bodily functioning (heart and kidneys) and cause permanent damage and in some cases increase your risk of death. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder it is important to seek professional help immediately. Receiving treatment early is the best way to overcome the psychological and physical effects associated with eating disorders.

Art Therapy

It is not uncommon for an individual with an eating disorder to have a hard time verbalizing their thoughts and feelings. Art therapy helps you express your emotions non-verbally, without the pressure of having to explain how you feel in a traditional therapy setting. An art therapist teaches you how to accept yourself and your body despite media images or societal pressures. Through art, you gain a new perspective on what is considered beautiful.

Art therapists tend to use a variety of supplies and techniques to appeal to your creative side.

Some of these materials and methods include:

  • Making Collages
  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Using Colored Markers and/or Pencils
  • Using Pastels
  • Creating Masks

Through your creations, you document your journey towards healing and recovery. At the end of treatment you and your art therapists can review your progress through your artwork.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is especially beneficial for an individual with an eating disorder. Eating disorders not only affect you and your well-being, they also affect your family, causing frustration and anxiety. When one member of the family has an eating disorder, it takes the attention off other family members such as siblings. In order for recovery to be successful it must include the entire faintly. Healing from an eating disorder takes time, effort and patience. It also takes the support of friends, family and co-workers.

Research suggests that family participation is vital for eating disorder healing and recovery, especially in regards to adolescents. A family therapist provides you with an opportunity to safely examine any issues and concerns that you have in the presence of your family.

Nutrition Therapy

An individual with an eating disorder may benefit from nutritional therapy. Nutritional information and/or counseling are often provided during eating disorder treatment. Nutrition therapy is usually guided by a registered dietitian, who is experienced in treating individuals with an eating disorder. Your nutrition therapist will teach you how to see food and your weight in a new, healthier light. During the first session, your therapist may give you a nutritional assessment to identify your eating habits, weight, exercise routine, medical conditions, body image concerns and self-esteem perception.

During nutrition therapy, your nutrition therapist may teach you how to identify and understand the following:

  • Consuming various types of food (carbohydrates, proteins and fats)
  • The significance of consuming foods from a variety of different categories
  • The importance of eating in moderation
  • The short-term and long-term effects of eating disorders on your mind and body
  • Identifying when your body is hungry and in need of food
  • Creating a healthy and balanced diet
  • Handling social eating (parties, restaurants, etc.)
  • Easing anxieties associated with eating certain types of foods
  • Developing a health-giving exercise routine
  • Supplementing with vitamins and minerals

During nutrition therapy, you work with your therapist to develop short-term and long-term goals that you can achieve.  Your therapist offers you acceptance, support, encouragement and a safe, non-judgmental environment during the recovery process. Once your nutritional needs are met, you will find that you have more energy, you sleep more soundly and you feel better all around.

Medical Care

It is important for individuals with an eating disorder to seek help immediately. An eating disorder can permanently damage your body. The more time you suffer from the eating disorder, the higher the risk of serious long-term effects. In some cases, chronic disordered eating patterns can lead to life-threating consequences.

Medical complications associated with eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and/or bingeing) include the following:

  • Cardiovascular Disease (Heart Disease)
  • Clinical and/or Manic Depression
  • Irregular Menstruation (Metrorrhagia or Oligomenorrhea)
  • Osteoporosis (Bone Loss)
  • Seizures
  • Gastrointestinal Distress
  • Renal Failure
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Tooth Decay

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to treat individuals with an eating disorder. A cognitive behavioral therapist teaches you how to change the way you think about your body, weight and your relationship with food, in general. This type of psychotherapy focuses on setting practical goals, developing concrete solutions to your issues and concerns and changing self-destructive and self-defeating thought processes and behaviors. Once you acquire theses new skills, you will be able to identify triggers, maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk of relapse.

Culinary Therapy

This may sound odd but culinary therapy has proven effective for some individuals with eating disorders. If you think about it, the day-to-day precision of recovering from an eating disorder is similar to the precision that goes into creating, preparing and consuming a meal. Culinary therapists teach you how to relate cooking to everyday life. These therapists explain how solving cooking-related issues can be similar to resolving issues that you may have in your own life.

According to culinary therapists recovery takes patience, time and dedication similar to creating that special dish. A culinary therapy homework assignment may consist of a trip to a farm, grocery store, restaurant and/or cooking classes with a healthy-living chef with the purpose of changing your perception of food. Over time, you will begin to view food as an “instrument” needed to maintain optimal bodily functioning and not as something to be feared and/or avoided.


American Psychiatric Association. (2006). Treatment of patients with eating disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 4-54.

Morris, J., & Twaddle, S. (2007). Anorexia nervosa. BMJ28(334), 894-898.

Williams, P. M., & Motsinger , C. D. (2008). Treating eating disorders in primary care. American Family Physician, 77(2), 187-195.


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