Holistic Health & Disordered Eating

Thanks to a healthcare system that favors measurements like body mass index (BMI) and a heavily diet- and fitness-focused culture, the number on the scale is far too often used as a stand-in for overall health.

And while weight can be indicative of someone’s health status, the number alone is far from enough information to pass judgment on someone’s overall wellbeing. In fact, there are many aspects of health that are reflective of physical condition and overall fitness that have nothing to do with weight.

Holistic health is a philosophy that takes these other aspects into account, looking at the overall balance of someone’s habits, lifestyle, and outlook to help determine their overall physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

Table of Contents

    What is Holistic Health?

    The concept of holistic health has become more popular in recent years, but the philosophy has actually been around—and used by some specially-trained nurses—for over a century. The core ideas behind holistic health were laid out by the famous caretaker Florence Nightingale, who started talking about the idea as far back as the late 1850s. (1)

    In short, holistic health asks a practitioner to consider a person as a whole, and look at their wellbeing in this light, rather than separating out and focusing on individual factors of their condition. In other words, providers work to address root problems and promote overall healing, rather than exclusively trying to stop or address symptoms.

    The original concept talked about the inseparable nature of a human’s health and environment, but the tenets of holistic health have since expanded, to include considerations about someone’s history, physiology, and lifestyle, and how they all intersect to create overall health. (1)

    To address these additional considerations, a provider may use a broader range of treatments than a traditional Western doctor may employ, including meditation and mindfulness techniques or suggestions based on ancient Chinese medicine. Adequate nutrition, healthy exercise, and stress management techniques may also be employed, to bolster both physical health and psychological wholeness.

    Holistic Health

    How Does Holistic Health Work?

    Holistic health is a whole-person approach to health, looking at the different factors that add up to create overall wellbeing.

    Holistic medical practices are based around six core tenements: (2)

    • Do no harm
    • Treat the whole person
    • Identify and treat the causes
    • Utilize the healing power of nature
    • A doctor’s primary role is to inform, educate and empower patients
    • Promote overall wellness

    When it comes to someone’s relationship with food and eating, a holistic approach may examine:

    • Physical factors: Holistic health does not solely focus on weight as a measure of someone’s physical health, but analyzes all aspects of an individual’s physical wellbeing, such as current nutrition intake, use of any medications, and the presence of any disease states.
    • Emotional factors: Understanding and healing from any underlying psychological issues can be helpful to a person who is looking to make peace with themselves, their body, and food.
    • Social factors: Having the support of family and friends and maintaining healthy relationships can be a key part of holistic health. Setting appropriate boundaries, practicing honesty, and connecting to support are all aspects needed for wellbeing.

    Hopefully, focusing on these broader aspects of health—rather than a plan that would simply promote weight loss—can help someone see they’re more than a number on a scale, even if they’re on a weight loss journey. This can lead to greater emotional and mental health benefits, which can, in turn, have a powerful impact on physical health.

    Holistic Approaches to Eating Disorder Treatment

    A holistic practitioner will likely ask in-depth questions about not just someone’s illness and symptoms but their history and lifestyle. They may make suggestions to alleviate or balance these other aspects of someone’s life to create a healthier harmony within their body and mind.

    In many cases, this involves incorporating relaxation techniques into someone’s routine, to help them ease their mind, body, and spirit. Some holistic approaches to promote a healthy lifestyle include: (2)

    • Acupuncture: To help reduce stress and complement other types of eating disorder treatment
    • Herbal medicine: This practice is aimed at creating physical, internal balance for a patient.
    • Homeopathy: A modality that examines, and works to correct, imbalances in the body
    • Meditation: A help for alleviating stress and anxiety, as well as finding mental and emotional acceptance
    • Relaxation therapy: Massage therapy and similar modalities which can help flush toxins and stimulate the release of certain hormones

    Benefits of a Holistic Health Outlook

    The biggest advantage of holistic health is the prevailing mindset it promotes. Humans are more than a bundle of symptoms, and a provider exclusively focusing on aspects of an illness may miss the forest for the trees.

    The overall idea behind this school of thought is to cultivate respect towards oneself and one’s body through adequate self-care. Self-love and self-respect, regardless of body weight, shape, or size, is the overall goal of a holistic point of view. And this can also promote the kind of organic and sustaining happiness and self-esteem that can help maintain recovery.

    Holistic health can also be used as a weight management tool, helping people reach a healthy weight without putting so much pressure on themselves to abide by specific societal standards. That’s because holistic health focuses on healthy eating habits, rather than specific diets. Using these types of techniques has also been shown to help with sustainable weight loss.

    Tips for Practicing Holistic Health

    There are many ways to practice holistic health for better physical, mental, and emotional health. Some of the top techniques you or your loved one can try include:


    Mindfulness describes a group of practices that help people focus on the current moment. That includes any thoughts, feelings, or sensations someone may be experiencing, as well as outside situations.

    In mindfulness practice, people are asked to remain separate from these experiences. Rather, they’re taught to be an objective observer, simply noting what’s going on without passing judgement. (4)

    The idea is that taking a step back to observe without judgement can help create mental breathing room and clarity, by allowing people to separate their thoughts and emotions from reality. (4)

    Mindful Eating

    Just as mindful meditation asks you to bring awareness to the sensations of the present, mindful eating asks patients to bring that same conscious observation to the act of eating. (3)

    Savoring the touch, taste, sight, and scent of food can help someone learn to enjoy or appreciate it more, and work on healing their relationship with food and eating.

    Health at Every Size

    The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement was founded on holistic philosophies. It promotes the idea that weight and health are not mutually exclusive, and that health instead exists on a continuum, with varying considerations for each individual. (5)

    Specifically, them movement advocates for ideas such as: (5)

    • Physical activity as life-enhancing movement (rather than obligation)
    • Eating for well being, including individual satiety and hunger cues, nutritional needs, and pleasure
    • Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body shapes and sizes, without emphasizing one particular body type

    Incorporating these types of philosophies into everyday thinking may make holistic approaches feel even more intuitive, helping someone understand that weight gain or weight loss are far from the only concerns in life, and that the best approach to holistic weight management is to learn to love and trust your own body, and work on making yourself happy.

    Mindful Health


    What’s the best approach to holistic weight loss?

    Most practices that are built on a holistic point of view work to de-emphasize weight loss as an overall health goal. While sometimes, weight loss may be a recommended course of treatment, holistic approaches also examine other facets of someone’s history and lifestyle, and work to create a healthy balance and harmony in someone’s life.

    Can holistic practices aid weight loss efforts?

    While it’s possible to use holistic practices for losing weight, it’s not the recommended use of these principles. In fact, the idea behind holistic health is that people are much more than their weight.

    Weight loss may result from eating nutritionally well-balanced meals, incorporating joyful movement, and practicing relaxation techniques, but holistic medicine says this should not be the overall goal.

    1. Thornton L. (2019). A Brief History and Overview of Holistic NursingIntegrative Medicine; 18(4):32–33.
    2. Smith F. (2019, March 19). How Naturopathic Physicians Support Eating Disorder Treatment. National University of Health Sciences. Accessed October 2023.
    3. Nelson JB. (2017). Mindful Eating: The Art of Presence While You EatDiabetes; 30(3):171–174.
    4. Mindfulness. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Accessed October 2023.
    5. About Health at Every Size (HAES). (n.d.). Association for Size Diversity and Health. Accessed October 2023.
    Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC Avatar

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    Last updated on October 23, 2023 and published on EatingDisorderHope.com