Treatment Strategies for Eating Disorders

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Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can be treated and sufferers can return to a healthy weight. The sooner these disorders are diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome will likely be.

Eating Disorders Are Complex

Treating eating disorders involves the development of a comprehensive plan that includes medical care and monitoring, psychological support and intervention, nutritional counseling, and, when necessary, medication. For some people, treatment may need to be long-term. 

People with eating disorders often do not recognize or admit that they are ill. As a result, they may strongly resist getting and staying in treatment. Family members and trusted friends can be helpful in ensuring that their loved one receives needed treatment and rehabilitation. If you think you or a loved one has an eating disorder, getting treatment as soon as possible is imperative.

Treatment for Anorexia

Treatment of anorexia requires a specific program that involves three main phases:

  1. Restoring weight and nutrition that has been lost to severe dieting and purging.
  2. Treating any psychological disturbances, such as distortion of body image, low self-esteem, and interpersonal or emotional conflicts.
  3. Achieving long-term remission and rehabilitation, or full recovery.

Early diagnosis and treatment definitely increase the treatment success rate.


Use of medications in people with anorexia is usually considered only after the patient has started to regain weight. Certain antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been shown to be helpful for dealing with mood and anxiety symptoms that often accompany anorexia.

For patients who have had severe weight loss, initial treatment is often in an inpatient hospital setting, where feeding plans can help deal with the patient's medical and nutritional needs. In some cases, intravenous feeding (IV) is recommended.


Once the malnutrition has been addressed and weight gain begins, psychotherapy, often cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or one-on-one and group psychotherapy, can help people with anorexia overcome low self-esteem and address distorted thought and behavior patterns that have led to their harmful eating behaviors.

Families are sometimes included in the therapy, particularly for anorexic teenagers, so parents can learn how to help the child gain weight and become mentally stronger until they can make her own healthy choices. One method that is often used is the Maudsley approach, which is an evidence-based, family-based treatment for eating disorders.

Treatment for Bulimia and Binge-Eating Disorders

The primary goal when treating bulimia and binge-eating disorders is to cut down on or even eliminate binge eating and purging. Treatment, therefore, typically involves nutritional counseling, psychological support, and medication. A combination of medication and psychotherapy is often the most beneficial approach.


Antidepressants such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have also been found to be helpful for people with bulimia, especially those who have depression or anxiety, or who don't respond to therapy alone. These medications also may help prevent relapse.

Antidepressants, specifically SSRIs, have also been found to help control appetite by suppressing the desire to binge.


Patients establish a pattern of eating regular, non-binge meals, and therapy focuses on improving attitudes related to the eating disorder, encouraging healthy but not excessive exercise, and resolving other conditions such as mood or anxiety disorders. Individual psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal psychotherapy, group psychotherapy that uses a cognitive-behavioral approach, and family therapy have been reported to be effective.

For patients whose bulimia has led to serious health problems, hospitalization may be necessary. Some programs may have a day treatment option. However, most cases can be treated on an outpatient basis. People who are in therapy discuss their thoughts and feelings around overeating, binge eating, as well as purging with the idea of eliminating any purging behavior.

The treatment goals and strategies for binge-eating disorder are similar to those for bulimia, and studies are currently evaluating the effectiveness of various interventions.

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  • National Institute of Mental Health. Eating Disorders: Facts About Eating Disorders and the Search for Solutions. NIH Publication No. 01-4901.

By Leonard Holmes, PhD
Leonard Holmes, PhD, is a pioneer of the online therapy field and a clinical psychologist specializing in chronic pain and anxiety.