National Eating Disorders Association

What Does Treatment of an Eating Disorder Involve?

The most effective and long-lasting treatment for an eating disorder is some form of psychotherapy or psychological counseling, coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs.  Ideally, this treatment should be tailored to the individual and will vary according to both the severities of the disorder and the patient’s particular problems, needs, and strengths.

Psychological counseling must address both the eating-disordered symptoms and the underlying psychological, interpersonal, and cultural forces that are contributing to the eating disorder.

  • The individual needs to learn how to live peacefully and healthfully with food and with her or himself.
  • Typically care is provided by a licensed health professional, including but not limited to a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, nutritionist, and/or medical doctor.
  • Care should be coordinated and provided by a health professional with expertise and experience in dealing with eating disorders.

Many people with eating disorders respond to outpatient therapy, including individual, group, or family therapy and medical management by their primary care provider.  Support groups, nutritional counseling, and psychiatric medications under careful medical supervision have also proven helpful for some individuals. Hospital-based care (including inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient and/or residential care in an eating disorders specialty unit or facility) is necessary when an eating disorder has led to physical problems that may be life threatening, or when it is associated with severe psychological or behavioral problems. The exact treatment needs of each individual will vary.  It is important for individuals struggling with an eating disorder to find a health professional they trust to help coordinate and oversee their care.

Treating an Eating Disorder

The most commonly used treatments—psychotherapy and medication—are delivered at various levels of inpatient and outpatient care, and in various settings depending on the severity of the illness and the treatment plan that has been developed for a particular patient. Learn more.

Treatment Settings and Levels of Care

Treatment is delivered in hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and private office settings. Levels of care consist of acute short-term inpatient care, partial inpatient care, intensive outpatient care (by day or evening), and outpatient care. Learn more.

Confidentiality Issues

Parents of children of legal age or friends of a person with an eating disorder may want to help navigate insurance issues and finding treatment facilities, or participate in treatment, but cannot talk with health professionals or facilities on a patient’s behalf without the patient’s permission because of certain regulations protecting medical privacy. Learn more.