How Do You Get Treatment For Eating Disorders?

Updated February 04, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

Eating disorders can affect just about anybody, and if they aren't handled in time, they can be life-threatening. But, how do you get treatment for eating disorders? What does that treatment look like? This article will answer these and other questions.

However, there is a wide variety of eating disorders, and they are not all handled in the same way. Also, treatment is likely to vary based on the individual and the doctor or team treating the condition, the severity of the condition, and how long the individual has had the condition.


What Is An Eating Disorder?

A person who has an eating disorder either doesn't eat enough to sustain them or eats but then disrupts the digestive process in some way. Either of these routes means that in the long term the individual can suffer from severe nutrient deficiencies, and may eventually die. These conditions can also cause less severe damage in the short term. Remedying nutrient deficiencies and other damage, such as the throat and dental damage that can be caused by bulimia, are a part of the overall treatment of the individual but are not likely to get at the underlying causes of the disorder.

Eating disorders can be caused by a variety of social, emotional, chemical, and potentially genetic factors. Often it takes many of these factors coinciding at the same time to cause an eating disorder.

Treating The Social Aspects

Eating disorders were once widely regarded as a strictly social problem - the results of unrealistic body expectations put out by the media and bullying by girls at school. We now understand that eating disorders are much more complicated than that, though social factors remain a significant problem.

Social pressure to lose weight can come from the media and peers, but it can also come from family members or colleagues who may be well-meaning but misguided in their attempts to convince a colleague or family member to lose weight, often for health reasons. If the individual begins to lose weight through an eating disorder, those around them may accidentally encourage the harmful behavior.

Social pressures are best dealt with through talk-therapy with a counselor or therapist. Talking with members of a support group can also help.

Treating The Emotional Aspects

Some individuals develop eating disorders with less outside pressure but rather develop the disorder as a way of coping with crises or feelings of powerlessness. Some people also develop eating disorders as a way of introducing more rules into their lives or to give them a sense of control.

Similar to social pressures, these pressures are usually handled through talk-therapy with a professional and support group.

Treating The Physical Aspects

As mentioned above, when an individual has had an eating disorder for an extended period they can begin to suffer nutrient deficiencies. Some of these nutrient deficiencies impact the individual's physical health, like how they're body accesses energy, coordinates movements, or builds muscle, hair, nails, and skin. Other nutrient deficiencies impact how the brain and emotions work.


This is similar to the cause of some cases of mood disorders like anxiety and depression, and some experts believe that they are closely related: that one may cause the other. This is potentially supported by the fact that many people who have an eating disorder also have a mood disorder.

This aspect of eating disorders may be treated with medication. The dose and duration depend on how responsive the patient is, as well as whether the deficiency was caused or worsened by the eating disorder. If the eating disorder caused the deficiency, then medication may only be required until the deficiency is corrected. If the deficiency existed before the eating disorder, then medication may be required indefinitely. Restoring the person to a physically healthy state is often done before beginning other interventions including talk-therapy.

Unlike with mood disorders, the treatment for an individual with an eating disorder also includes nutritional counseling to teach them about the importance of nutrients in keeping a healthy mind and body, as well as how to get a healthy amount of nutrients from their diet.

Genetic Components

There is a growing belief in the scientific community that there is a genetic component to eating disorders as well. Individual genes have yet to be isolated, however.

While genetics and a family history of eating disorders are considered to be a "risk factor" for developing an eating disorder, there is not currently a treatment that addresses this aspect of eating disorders.

Recognizing Risk Factors And Symptoms

It is very important to catch eating disorders as soon as possible to maximize the effectiveness of treatment and to minimize damage caused by the disorder. Confronting someone about an eating disorder that they don't have, however, can also be emotionally harmful to the individual, so it is important not to jump to conclusions too quickly. This is true of adults worrying about their adult friends or family members, but it is more important for parents who are worried about eating disorders in children.

This is true because the concept of parental trust is important to children, because they do not have the option not to see a specialist if they know that they don't have a disorder, and because rumors about children having eating disorders can be more socially damaging than rumors about adults having eating disorders.


Whether you are worried about a child or an adult friend, it is better to foster an environment of care and support than it is to confront them about an eating disorder head-on, especially if you do not know the symptoms of eating disorders. Before you confront someone about their eating disorder, consider these risk factors and symptoms adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association:

  • Does the person have a close relative with an eating disorder or emotional disorder like depression or anxiety?
  • Does the person have a history of dieting?
  • Does the person have type 1 diabetes?
  • Is the person a perfectionist, or a stickler for the rules?
  • Is the person bullied or otherwise sensitive about their weight?
  • Is the person from another country?
  • Does the person show strange attitudes about foods like only eating certain foods or not eating around people?
  • Does the person seem to be preoccupied or obsessed with their body and weight loss?
  • Does the person have mood swings or difficulty concentrating?
  • Does the person's weight appear to change rapidly?
  • Does the person regularly have gastrointestinal problems (heartburn, cramps, &c.)?
  • Is there evidence of induced vomiting (Calluses on the tops of the knuckles, discolored teeth, &c.)?
  • Does the person often feel week, cold, or sick?
  • Does the person have unhealthy hair and nails?

If you are worried that a loved one has an eating disorder, it can also help to talk to your doctor, a therapist, or counselor to get a professional opinion before you bring up your concerns with the individual.

Treatment For Eating Disorders At Different Ages

It can be easier to get young people treatment for an eating disorder because it is easier to get young people diagnosed as they are more likely to see a doctor regularly. As minors, they also have more limited rights to refuse treatment than adults do.

Because people who have eating disorders typically know that they have eating disorders, adults with an eating disorder may avoid seeing a health care provider for regular checkups, which may mean that they are not diagnosed until the condition has become fairly advanced.


Diagnosis of an eating disorder is often made by the primary care provider, who then provides referrals to other experts, possibly including psychiatrists, psychologists, nutritionists, and others. A primary care provider is usually the first professional to notice the symptoms of an eating disorder. Being diagnosed by a primary care provider also increases the likelihood that treatment will be covered by insurance.

What Does Treatment Look Like?

As mentioned above, the first step is usually restoring the individual to a physically healthy state. This is followed by addressing the causes of the eating disorder, usually through talk-therapy. The final step is usually arranging a plan to help keep the individual from relapsing. Talk-therapy and medication may continue beyond this step if the person has a mood disorder or other condition separate from the eating disorder, as is often the case.

The type and extent of care depend on the severity of the eating disorder and the age of the individual. For example, advanced forms of the disorder may need to be treated in a hospital or psychiatric facility. For younger patients and patients with less severe disorders, some kinds of therapy take place entirely at home. In most cases, the individual will live at home during their treatment but have appointments to receive counseling and for their health to be monitored.

The type of counseling depends on the social and emotional causes of the eating disorder.

Finding Help

Unfortunately, you can't accept help for someone else with an eating disorder. Fortunately, many people with eating disorder self-diagnose themselves and seek help. This is best done through the path mentioned above that begins with being diagnosed by a primary care provider. It's okay to tell your primary care provider that you think you have an eating disorder, even if you have not had one long enough to manifest significant physical symptoms. You also don't need to wait until your next routine checkup to talk to your doctor about an eating disorder.

If your condition is not advanced, however, you may be able to get by with talk therapy alone. Some people find that the stigma of mental health makes it easier for them to talk to a therapist remotely rather than one in their community.

To learn more about the options and benefits associated with talking to a therapist or counselor online, visit

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