Outpatient Programs for Eating Disorder Treatment

The level of care someone receives for their eating disorder depends on how severe their condition is. There are a few different treatment options. One of the treatment options is outpatient eating disorder treatment. This article will discuss the various aspects of outpatient care.

What are Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment Centers?

Outpatient eating disorder treatment can look a few different ways. Here are the three outpatient treatment options:

  • Outpatient: When someone is referred to outpatient treatment, that means they are seeing a therapist and registered dietitian on a weekly to biweekly basis. Outpatient treatment can also include appointments with a psychiatrist on an as-needed basis.
  • Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): An IOP program is a day program that someone attends for a few hours a day, usually three to five times a week. This type of treatment takes place in a treatment center. An IOP treatment center usually offers group therapy, meal coaching, nutritional counseling, and individual and family therapy.
  • Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP): Even though hospitalization is in the name, this is still a day program. PHP is more intensive than IOP programs, with clients attending the majority of the day, five to six days a week. Similar to IOP, PHP treatment centers offer meal coaching, group therapy, individual counseling, family therapy, nutritional counseling, and psychiatrist appointments.

Whether someone is seeking outpatient anorexia treatment or outpatient treatment for bulimia or binge eating disorder, the above treatment options are what is widely available.

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Going to IOP for Bulimia Treatment

Group Therapy

What is Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment Like?

Outpatient treatment can look a little different depending on the treatment program. Regardless if someone is seeking bulimia outpatient treatment or outpatient treatment for anorexia or binge eating disorder, they tend to attend the same program.

Even though there might be slight differences, there tends to be similar things in each program. Each of these are mentioned above, but this section will look at each component in more detail.

  • Group therapy: Group therapy is an opportunity for individuals to give and receive feedback to others who have similar issues. Group therapy topics might include coping skills, body image acceptance, mindfulness, or peer support. There is a wide range of group topics that treatment programs may offer.
  • Individual and family therapy: Mental health counseling for eating disorders is an opportunity for an individual to sort through any beliefs and feelings that feed into their eating disorder. At the IOP or PHP level of care, someone may see their therapist several times per week. Family therapy is an opportunity to work through any relational stressors that may contribute to someone’s eating disorder.
  • Nutritional Counseling- Registered dietitians (RD) can provide nutritional counseling. This service provides an opportunity to work through any disordered beliefs and habits with food. Sessions with an RD can also help someone develop a meal plan and relearn healthy food habits.
  • Psychiatrist- While there aren’t any medications that are specific to treating eating disorders, there are medications that can help. Psychiatrists can help people find a medication that treats other mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, that are common in people with eating disorders.
  • Meal coaching- Treatment programs often include meal coaching. This means that staff members will eat meals with clients and also provide supervision during meal preparation and while eating. This can be a helpful form of behavioral therapy. Meal coaching can

Outpatient programs may differ in the frequency in which they offer these services. For example, some programs may offer one individual therapy session a week while another program offers two. Each program will have their own schedule and unique offerings.

Outpatient treatment programs will have staff who are trained specifically to treat eating disorders. This is specialized training and is not something that all medical and mental health providers are qualified to treat.

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Meal Plans

Meal plans in eating disorder treatment are created by a registered dietitian who is eating disorder informed. Unlike a meal plan that someone might find online or in a weight loss program, meal plans in outpatient treatment are different.

Meal plans are used to help someone develop normal, regular eating habits. These meal plans are customized to the individual based on their eating disorder history and nutritional needs.

Here are some examples on how meal plans can be customized: Someone in outpatient anorexia treatment learn how to portion appropriately and to include a variety of food groups into their meals and snacks.

An individual with anorexia may have a fear of fats. Their meal plan and support from a dietitian in treatment can help them learn to incorporate fats into their diet in a balanced way.

Similarly, a person in outpatient binge eating disorder treatment may be anxious eating certain foods during meal times because they usually binge those foods. Learning to integrate certain types of foods without binging them is one benefit of having a meal plan.

These meal plans are not rigid or highly structured. They are meant to be a guide. As someone progresses through their recovery, the meal plan can become even more relaxed.

Are Eating Disorder Outpatient Programs the Best Treatment?

Outpatient programs are a good fit for certain people. This level of care is only the best treatment option if someone meets the criteria for outpatient treatment. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, for someone to be appropriate for outpatient treatment, they must meet the following criteria:

  • Medically stable
  • At least 80% of their healthy body weight
  • Decent motivation. This person may still experience obsessive eating disorder thoughts throughout the day, but they are at least partially motivated to make a change
  • At the PHP level of care, someone may need some structure to maintain or gain weight. At the IOP and outpatient level, they are self-sufficient
  • For people in IOP and PHP programs, they may need some external accountability to prevent compulsive exercising
  • Established support system
  • Does not require supervision in order to prevent suicidal behavior [1]

When is an Intensive Outpatient Eating Disorder Program Needed?

There are subtle differences between criteria for IOP and PHP programs. The main differences between individuals in IOP and PHP programs come down to level of motivation, percentage of healthy weight and the level of support they need to maintain a healthy weight.

How to Select an Outpatient Program

Selecting an outpatient program can be overwhelming. There are a few things to look for that can help someone narrow down their options. These are:

  • Payment- Most people need to use insurance to pay for treatment. Check to see if a treatment center or provider accepts your insurance.
  • Location-While most urban areas have plenty of treatment centers, it can be more challenging in rural areas. Location can make a big difference in deciding where to go. You can search online for treatment centers in your area. If you’re open to virtual treatment, there are Telehealth outpatient treatment programs available.
  • Accreditation- There are accrediting bodies that evaluate treatment programs. These accreditations are there to make sure a treatment center is safe and effective. Individual providers can’t be accredited, but check to see if they are registered with the licensing board in your area.
  • Contact the Admissions Department- Treatment centers usually have an admissions department. Admissions representatives can answer questions about the program. This can help provide some insight into whether a program may be a good fit.

Paying Online

How to Pay for Treatment

Most people need to use insurance in order to pay for treatment. To find out if a treatment center takes a certain insurance, contact your insurance company. They can let you know who is in-network or can send you a list of providers who is. Someone who is able or wants to pay cash for treatment may be able to arrange a payment plan with a treatment center.


[1] National Eating Disorder Association. (n.d). Level of care guidelines for patients. Retrieved September 29th, 2021 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/toolkit/parent-toolkit/level-care-guidelines-patients

Author: Samantha Bothwell, LMFT
Page Last Reviewed & Updated on October 19, 2021 by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC