Treatment Approaches for Eating Disorder Recovery

Two puzzel pieces being put together

Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Psychiatric disorders can be just as ambiguous as they are complex, especially when it comes to treatment approaches for eating disorder recovery. However, two aspects of eating disorders known definitively are that they do not discriminate due to gender, religion, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, and they can manifest at any age.

Eating disorders are beyond dangerous: they are life-threatening. These diseases have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder due to the myriad of medical complications and the high risk of suicide associated. Hence, it is critically important to address an eating disorder as soon as its signs are identified.

A combination of evidence-based and effective treatments should be used to guide those suffering through the healing process and to treat such complex and dangerous disorders.

Eating disorder treatment depends on your particular disorder and your symptoms. It typically includes a combination of psychological therapy (psychotherapy), nutrition education, medical monitoring, and sometimes medications.

Levels of Treatment Approaches

Identifying the level of treatment can be the first step in the healing process.

Outpatient therapy may be the first approach, and if this fails to achieve positive results, inpatient or residential treatment may soon be recommended. Residential treatment involves the patient temporarily living at an eating disorder treatment facility.

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Although the course of treatment can appear parallel, the therapeutic strategies differ due to age, acuity level, length of stay, and level of participation.

A child under ten years of age requires treatment with a more simplistic approach to best suit her cognitive ability. An adolescent will require a different method due to her maturational level along with her changing, and still developing body.

An adult, though able to synthesize more knowledge, has a wholly different set of thoughts and concerns, such as a career, life partner, possible children, etc.

Treatment Approaches Should Include:


Traditionally known as talk therapy, psychotherapy involves one-on-one counseling with a therapist. This treatment modality is specifically designed to understand the causes and thought processes behind an eating disorder and accordingly help the patient learn new skills and techniques to cope with painful emotions and stressors of life.

Treatment may involve various therapies such as:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of psychotherapy highlights behaviors, thoughts, and feelings related to the eating disorder. After patients gain healthy eating behaviors, it assists them to learn to recognize and transform distorted thoughts that encourage eating disorder behaviors.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is a valuable component of the psychotherapy relationship. The patient learns the importance of mindfulness, which supports the ability to increase awareness of the thoughts, sensations, and emotions as they are being experienced. In the case of a compulsion to purge, a person practicing mindfulness will possess the ability to acknowledge the thought as a separate entity from the desired action and choose to respond differently in the face of that thought.
  • Family-based therapy. This therapy involves family members and encourages them to learn how to help the patient restore healthy eating patterns and achieve a healthy weight until he/she can do it on their own. This is particularly useful for parents learning how to help a teen with an eating disorder.

Nutritional Counseling

Organic fruits and vegetables used in Treatment Approaches for Eating Disorder RecoveryRegardless of whether a person is struggling with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, affiliation with a registered dietitian (RD) is an extremely crucial component of recovery.

Treatment cannot merely be based upon the cessation of disordered eating. A person needs to learn how to establish a healthy relationship with food.

The RD can create a sustainable and individualized meal plan that helps the patient maintain a healthy weight that is right for her body.

In time, this food plan will be referred to as good eating habits or positive eating lifestyle, simply to remove the formulaic nature of the word diet or plan. The goal is to work toward a healthy weight, practice meal planning, and remedy health problems stemming from malnutrition or obesity.

Psycho-education is part of this counseling practice, especially if the person has damaged her body as a result of malnutrition. The RD helps her to recognize how the restricting, bingeing, or purging behaviors negatively impact the body.

The goal is for the individual in recovery to develop an intentional relationship with food, in an effort to experience hunger and satiety cues based on physical needs instead of emotional triggers.

Expressive Therapy

Most of the disorder is contained within the body itself. Therapeutic modalities such as art, dance, and even yoga, are designed to promote emotional and physical healing. Expressive therapies are not concerned with tangible outcomes. Instead, the value is in the process.

These therapies allow a hurting or wounded individual to communicate her innermost experience without words. The movement and expression will enable her to reconnect with her physical body and inner being.

Since expressive therapies are rarely applied alone, the person has the opportunity to reconnect relationally. In a dance movement or yoga class, participants might chat or even laugh while connecting to her peers as they move together.


Medication in itself is not a cure. It works best in combination with psychological therapy. Antidepressants are the most commonly utilized medications for eating disorder treatment.

Taking an antidepressant may be especially helpful if you have bulimia or binge-eating disorder. Antidepressants can also help reduce symptoms of depression or anxiety, which frequently occur along with eating disorders.

As cited in ANAD statistics data, 50 percent of those meeting the criteria for an eating disorder also meet the criteria for depression. Almost two-thirds of the patients also suffer from an anxiety disorder.

You may also need to take medications for physical health problems caused by your eating disorder.


Doctor talking to a patientHospitalization may be necessary if the associated physical or mental health issues are severe or life-threatening.

In many cases, the most critical goal of hospitalization is to stabilize acute medical symptoms by beginning the process of normalizing eating and weight.

The majority of eating and weight restoration takes place in the outpatient setting.

Recovery is possible

As complex as an eating disorder is, the treatment options must be intentional and designed to meet the needs of the individual. The effort is to treat the person, not just the symptoms. With a blend of creative treatment approaches, the individual will have the best chance of recovery.

Having a well-structured and strategic approach to eating disorder treatment can help you manage symptoms, return to a healthy weight, and maintain your physical and mental health. You get a fair shot at living life to its full potential.


[1] (2017, July 14). Eating disorder treatment: Know your options. Retrieved from

About Our Sponsor:

Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center provides quality, holistic care to women and adolescent girls ages 12 and older. We treat individuals struggling to overcome eating disorders, substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, trauma and post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and co-occurring disorders. Our campus is located on 43 wooded acres just outside Chicago. This peaceful setting offers an ideal environment for women and girls to focus on recovery.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed & Updated on August 28, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Originally Published January 26, 2016, on
Current version updated with statistics, recent research & video.