Outpatient vs. Intensive Outpatient Programs for Eating Disorders

Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), and binge eating disorder (BED) are serious mental health conditions that affect people of all ages and genders and are characterized by a range of behaviors related to food and body image. What they have in common, however, is that they all require special eating disorder care to overcome.

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    As these mental health disorders can be life-threatening and have severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, seeking treatment for an eating disorder is vital.

    But each case is as unique as the person experiencing it. That’s why there are several levels of care—from inpatient treatment to outpatient care—generally offered for those in eating disorder recovery, with plans tailored to fit someone’s specific recovery journey.

    Many patients may begin or end their eating disorder treatment with an outpatient program. But for some, an intensive outpatient program (IOP) may be more helpful.


    What is an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)?

    Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) are a form of treatment for those struggling with addiction or mental health issues.

    As eating disorder treatment programs, IOPs typically involve a combination of individual therapy, group therapy, and nutritional counseling. Patients attend therapy and counseling sessions several times a week for several hours at a time. The goal of these programs is to provide a strong system of support and guidance to those struggling with eating disorders while still allowing them enough time and space to maintain social responsibilities, like work or school.

    Intensive outpatient programs provide a level of support that is more involved than a standard outpatient program but less involved than residential treatment programs or inpatient treatment.1 With residential treatment, patients live at the treatment center to receive more intensive care.

    On the other hand, an IOP allows a patient to live and sleep at home while still receiving a steady amount of support and care. The point of this hybrid schedule is to enable a patient to have the chance to practice their new coping skills outside of a clinical facility.

    Types of Treatment Offered Through IOPs

    Intensive outpatient programs for eating disorders offer a range of treatment modalities, including:

    • Individual therapy
    • Group therapy
    • Recreational/art therapies
    • Support groups

    These programs aim to provide comprehensive and tailored care to individuals struggling with eating disorders, with a focus on helping them identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors.

    Individual Therapy

    When seeking treatment from IOPs, individual therapy sessions are available to patients, along with other forms of treatment. Though they aren’t typically the primary form of treatment, individualized sessions give patients a space to focus on their unique challenges with their eating disorder.

    As opposed to group therapy, this more intensive treatment allows for more targeted and personalized attention to the specific issues people with eating disorders face.1 The method can be especially beneficial to those who aren’t that comfortable in group therapy.

    Individual therapy sessions typically occur every week, though patients may schedule more sessions early on in treatment as needed, especially if dealing with co-occurring disorders or while completing an IOP.

    Group Therapy

    Participating in group therapy can offer a tremendous amount of support for those suffering from eating disorders. In group therapy sessions, eating disorder patients have the opportunity to build connections and socialize with others who are in similar situations.

    Additionally, group therapy provides a safe and supportive environment where patients can benefit from feeling less isolated and learning or practicing healthier communication methods.2 Group members who are further along in their recovery journey can also practice giving valuable feedback and empathy to those just starting their journey.

    When it comes to IOPs, group therapy is the primary form of therapy used for a successful recovery.

    Recreational & Complementary Therapy

    Many IOPs offer alternative or holistic therapies to complement their traditional approaches. Art therapy, music therapy, and adventure therapy may be offered.

    These treatments allow eating disorder patients to tap into nontraditional ways of healing. Typically, these sessions are led by therapists who are specially trained in the particular treatment and often take place in a group setting.

    Support Groups

    Support groups often play a significant role in someone’s IOP schedule. Like group therapy, support groups offer a sense of community, a safe space to practice new skills, and a forum to share experiences and exchange advice.

    Many IOPs host such meetings on their premises, which makes it even more convenient for patients. However, additional support groups can often be found online.3

    These groups have meetings held at different times. With the expansion of the internet and telehealth, it is possible to join groups across the country or even worldwide, allowing people the ultimate flexibility in their day-to-day lives.

    Selecting an Outpatient Program

    Eating Disorder Support Groups

    What is a Standard Outpatient Eating Disorder Treatment?

    Another common form of treatment for eating disorders is standard outpatient treatment.

    This level of care typically consists of weekly sessions with a therapist and/or dietitian and regular check-ins with a physician. Like intensive outpatient eating disorder treatment, these programs may include group therapy, nutritional counseling, and other support services scheduled at a patient’s discretion.

    The major difference between standard outpatient care and an IOP is that these sessions are less frequent or intensive than those in intensive outpatient treatment programs. But while an IOP may have a set time on it or a schedule managed more by someone’s treatment team, patients in standard outpatient care generally manage their own schedules. They can continue attending therapy sessions as long as they’d like or need.

    What Types of Treatments are Part of Standard Outpatient Care?

    A standard outpatient treatment program for eating disorders can include different types of therapies, such as:4

    • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): One-on-one therapy that involves speaking with an eating disorder therapist to recognize and change negative thought patterns.
    • Enhanced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-E): The combination of talk therapy and specific eating practices to heal the patient’s relationship with food.
    • Family-based treatment (FBT): A therapeutic practice that focuses on family meal habits so that the family unit works together to support their loved one through their eating disorder.

    Patients in these programs typically undergo treatment part-time by attending appointments regularly while continuing their daily activities. The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide ongoing support for patients as they work towards recovery by giving them an outlet for accountability and a chance to continue monitoring for and managing triggering situations.

    Sometimes, standard outpatient therapy is the next step for those who have already gone through an IOP or a residential inpatient program. With the help of a team of healthcare professionals, patients can confidently build the skills and tools needed to manage their eating disorders and attain long-term health and well-being.


    Intensive Outpatient Programs vs. Standard Outpatient Programs

    Both intensive outpatient programs and standard outpatient programs are highly effective forms of treatment for eating disorders. However, when choosing the right program, it’s essential to assess the specific needs and circumstances of the patient accurately.

    Intensive outpatient programs typically involve more frequent and longer therapy sessions and more meticulous monitoring of the patient’s physical and mental health. On the other hand, standard outpatient programs generally involve less regular therapy sessions and more flexibility in scheduling.

    Those with more severe eating disorders tend to benefit more from the frequency and structure of intensive outpatient programs. At the same time, those with milder cases may find all the success they need with standard outpatient programs.

    Frequently, a patient will seek treatment from a standard outpatient program after leaving an inpatient facility. Doing so helps the individual transition back to a treatment-free life more seamlessly. Other times, an IOP is the next step if a standard outpatient program isn’t proving to be effective for a patient with a higher level of need.

    Overall, seeking professional help and finding a program that fits one’s needs is crucial for recovery.

    Finding Help for an Eating Disorder

    If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, it is vital to seek professional help as soon as possible.

    You can start by talking to your doctor, therapist, or another trusted medical professional. These experts can help you with an official diagnosis, point you in the direction of a successful program, or help you determine your next best steps.

    If you’d rather not speak face-to-face about something so sensitive, there are many eating disorder hotlines you can also utilize. These services generally allow callers to remain anonymous while disseminating information and other resources about eating disorders and treatment programs.

    But regardless of where you look for help, know that seeking help is okay and that, with the proper treatment and support, recovery is always possible.

    1. Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): What Is It & Find IOPs Near Me. (2023, May 24). American Addiction Centers. Retrieved June 2023.
    2. 4 Reasons Why Group Therapy Is a Key to Eating Disorder Recovery. Monte Nido. Retrieved June 2023.
    3. Eating Disorder Peer Support Groups. ANAD. Retrieved June 2023.
    4. Eating Disorders Program – Eating Disorders. UCLA Health. Retrieved June 2023.