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Treatments for eating disorders

3-minute read

It can be hard for someone with an eating disorder to take the first steps towards getting help. They may feel ashamed, guilty or scared. They may feel like they don’t have a problem, or that it’s under control.

But seeking help early is important because there can be long-term health consequences for people with chronic eating disorders. Professional assistance can help make a diagnosis and set a person on the path to recovery. Research has shown that early intervention gives the best chance of recovery.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to treating eating disorders. Everyone is different and so treatment will be tailored to meet each individual’s needs. There is often a team of health professionals who are involved in an individual’s treatment. This could include a psychologist, dietitian and a doctor.

Some of the treatment options available include:

  • Counselling: this involves regular visits to a psychologist, psychiatrist or other mental health counsellor. There are different methods that counsellors may use to help a person with an eating disorder. A common method is ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ (CBT). This helps individuals identify and change the thoughts, feelings and behaviours associated with their eating disorder.
  • Nutrition education: a dietitian can help a person with an eating disorder learn healthy eating habits and return to a normal weight. For a person with anorexia nervosa this is the most essential step. This could include education about nutrition, meal planning, establishing regular eating habits and ways to avoid dieting.
  • Family approaches: family approaches are most common when young people are being treated for an eating disorder. The aim is to treat the person with the eating disorder, while also supporting and educating the entire family about how to care for the person with the eating disorder and strengthening family relationships.
  • Medication: there is no medication to specifically treat eating disorders. However, a person with an eating disorder may be prescribed medicines to treat other symptoms. Antidepressants are sometimes used to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Medications should only be used in conjunction with other treatment approaches.

Person-centred, stepped care

Person-centred, stepped care is the most effective way to treat someone with an eating disorder. This means that treatment is tailored to suit that person's illness, situation and needs. It recognises that people with eating disorders may need to move up and down variously through various levels of care throughout their illness.

Supporting family

It’s not just individuals who are affected by eating disorders. Their family, friends and colleagues may find it difficult to cope too. Family members may feel guilt, confusion, anger, grief or fear. It’s important for family and friends to support someone with an eating disorder, by showing love and care. With the right professional, social and emotional support, a person with an eating disorder can recover.

Where to get help

Eating disorders are treatable. Visiting a doctor is the first step to recovery.

You can also talk in confidence to an adviser from The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

Call Eating Disorders Victoria on 1300 550 236 or (03) 9417 6598 if you are interstate.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2018

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