Eating Disorders

Eating Disorder Treatment

People with eating disorders have a mental illness that impacts their relationship with food. They may eat far too much or far too little. They may obsess about food, allowing this obsession to impact all decisions they make during the day. Over time, this compulsion can lead to significant health problems, including death.

People with drug- or alcohol-related compulsions are often told to avoid these substances at all costs. People with eating disorders can’t take this same advice. Instead, they need to learn new ways to eat, working toward a healthy relationship with food. It’s difficult work, to be sure, but it is work that could save the person’s life.

The Scope

Many people in the United States struggle with eating disorders, and often, they don’t get the help they need to beat their diseases. Consider these figures from the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • As many as 11 million adults struggle with an eating disorder.
  • The incidence of bulimia in women ages 10 to 39 tripled between 1988 and 1993.
  • Only six percent of people with bulimia receive mental health care.
  • Only one-third of people with anorexia get mental health care.
  • Anorexia has the highest premature death rate of any mental illness.

While eating disorders can impact anyone of any age and either gender, they are most commonly found in teenage girls. The three most common types of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.

People with anorexia believe that they are overweight, even when they are severely underweight. They may weigh themselves repeatedly, keeping track of their weight down to the last ounce. They may exercise compulsively, trying to sweat off extra pounds. They may only eat tiny portions of specific foods that they believe carry small amounts of calories.People who live with anorexia nervosa are, in essence, living in a state of starvation, putting extreme amounts of stress on their bodies. The consequences of this stress can be severe, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and can include:

  • Thin and brittle bones that are vulnerable to fracture
  • Brain damage
  • Kidney and/or heart failure
  • Infertility
  • Low body temperature
  • Lethargy and sluggishness
  • Yellow skin
  • Brittle or missing hair

While it might seem obvious to friends and family members that the person with anorexia has a dangerously low body weight, the anorexic may not believe that there truly is a problem. It’s common for young women with anorexia, for example, to point to fashion models and highlight the very tiny bodies that grace the covers. The young women may feel as though their weight is still high, compared to these models. People with anorexia who don’t believe they have a problem may need serious interventions from family members or friends as they may be unable to ask for help on their own.

Hospitalization and Inpatient Care

People with significant weight loss due to eating disorders sometimes need to be hospitalized. It’s difficult to address the eating disorder while the person is still struggling with health problems due to low body weight. In a forced hospitalization program, the person is provided with meals at specific times each day and asked to eat those meals. If the person will not comply, the hospital staff may provide nutrition through a tube placed in the person’s nose.

It may sound harsh to force a person to take in nutrition, but it’s important to remember that people can die from extremely low body weights. These sorts of interventions may be necessary in order to keep the person alive so he or she can get therapeutic treatments and get better over the long term.

While many people who have eating disorders can heal with outpatient treatment, allowing them to continue living at home while they receive therapies described below, there are some people who need to live in a facility and receive intense treatments for a specific period of time. People who are facing life-threatening complications, or people who have severe behavioral problems related to their eating disorder, might benefit from inpatient care. At times, insurance programs will pay for this care, especially if the person’s life is at risk. This is an issue families should consider before treatment begins. Outpatient treatment may be less expensive, but inpatient care may truly be necessary.

Nutrition Counseling

At its core, eating disorders revolve around a fear of food and a lack of knowledge about how much food a person should eat in a single day. Often, eating disorder treatments include some form of nutrition counseling that allows the person to learn more about creating healthful eating plans. This sort of counseling is particularly important for people with binge eating syndromes who need to lose weight quickly, but some therapists also include nutrition counseling for people who have anorexia. These therapies may allow the people with anorexia to resolve their fears of so-called “bad” foods.

Nutrition counseling isn’t the only form of therapy needed, however. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry makes this quite clear. Out of 33 people hospitalized for anorexia, 53 percent dropped out of therapy when they were only provided nutrition counseling. It’s clear that more intensive therapies need to complement nutrition counseling.


This is the most common method used to treat eating disorders. Here, people meet with counselors and they discuss the disease at length. The patient learns how thought patterns and negative self-talk can contribute to the disease. Patients might be asked to describe how their bodies look, for example, and therapists may work closely with the patient to help him or her develop a more realistic self-image. People may learn to avoid triggers such as fashion magazines, and they may be encouraged to steer clear of daily weight measurement.

Sometimes, family members also participate in counseling sessions. They may learn how their family dynamics contribute to the disease, and they may develop new communication methods that can help the person heal. At times, family members of people with anorexia are asked to take an even stronger role, preparing all of the patient’s meals until he or she develops a healthier relationship with food. The so-called “Maudsley Method” can sometimes be used to treat other eating disorders as well.

Relapse Rates

People with eating disorders have a mental illness that can recur. Therapies can ease the symptoms and help the person heal, but the mental illness may remain in the background for many months or even for years, and the person may need ongoing help for a long period of time. According to a study published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, one-third of people treated for bulimia relapsed after one year. This is just one study of many that have found the same result. It’s clear that the patient and their family need to make a long-term commitment to fight the disease in order help the person truly heal.

If someone you love has an eating disorder, or you have an eating disorder yourself, we urge you to call us today. We can help you find a treatment program that can allow the healing to begin. Give us a call today.