Getting Help for an Eating Disorder

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It’s not easy to admit you have an eating disorder, and seeking treatment for it may seem like a scary, even impossible, task. But just recognizing that you have a problem with food can be a sign of hope — hope that you are ready to begin moving past your addiction and begin living well again. Now you can focus on finding the right help and getting the treatment that works for you. 

The Greatest Myth

People with eating disorders are every age, gender and ethnicity. They are intelligent, sensitive and caring people who are more predisposed to addictive behavior because of genetic and personality features like perfectionism or difficulty regulating their emotions.

The most common myth around eating disorders is that you have to be skinny to have one. The majority of people with eating disorders are average weight or overweight. Whether you suffer from  Anorexia Nervosa (AN)Bulimia Nervosa (BN)Binge-Eating Disorder (BED) or Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), the disorder is more about your obsession with food and your body, and not necessarily with how your body actually looks. Most people with eating disorders are distorted in their body image and cannot accurately tell what their body looks like anyway.

The Road to Recovery

Recovery from an eating disorder  is possible, according to Rachel Rose, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the  Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders. Unlike addiction, the majority of individuals with eating disorders who receive appropriate therapy recover. Rose counsels adolescents and adults with eating disorders, specializing in trauma and self-harm behavior, and works with many abuse survivors and individuals who struggle with emotion regulation issues.

“I see mostly girls and women, but I have seen an increase in men and boys coming in for treatment,” she notes. “The eating disorder is usually around to help the person cope with other long-standing problems, such as trauma, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or ADHD issues.”

When it comes to recovery, Rose says that there is no one typical recovery period.

“I have seen individuals who get treatment early who recover in three months or less, or adults who have struggled with an eating disorder for years who take years in recovery. I absolutely believe people can, and do, recover.”

Relapses are common with eating disorders, according to Rose, especially when you experience a big transition, such as going to college, getting married or having children. Relapse is also common when you continue to have strict rules around food and compensate for what you believe is unhealthy eating.

“I believe it’s helpful to see the relapse as a learning experience and move on from it,” she says.

Rose notes that recovery is about having a balanced relationship with food. Eating disorders are different from other addictions in that you have to be exposed, and are expected to engage in eating behavior at least three times a day.

“There is naturally more room for error because eating is a complex interaction of mind and body awareness; the body is designed to crave and want food, and it is learning how to be mindful of these natural urges.”

The Treatment Path

Treatment for an eating disorder can involve individual therapy, group therapy, nutritional support, medications, psychiatric care, and outpatient, inpatient or long-term residential treatment (living away from home in a treatment center). You may work with a primary care physician, dietitian and/or mental health professional.

Most people with eating disorders are treated on an outpatient basis after a comprehensive evaluation. If you have a medical complication due to severe weight loss or due to the effects of binge eating and purging, you may require hospitalization.

How to Help a Loved One

Unfortunately, the risk of death is increased with eating disorders due to medical complications and suicidal impulses. People with eating disorders have the highest suicide rate for any mental illness, so it’s extremely important to voice your concern if you suspect a loved one may be struggling.

Approach the person privately, and express your concern in a way that shows compassion. Try not to lecture or accuse the individual of attention seeking. Be caring, but direct, and try to be as specific as possible about your observations and concerns.

Denial and anger are common reactions, but you cannot force someone into treatment. Simply tell your loved one you are worried and would like her to seek help, and try the discussion again at another time. 

For more information on specific eating disorders and where to find help, visit the  Academy for Eating Disorders or  EDReferral.com.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 16
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. About Eating Disorders. Academy for Eating Disorders. http://www.aedweb.org/web/index.php/education/eating-disorder-information/eating-disorder-informatio...

  2. Treatment. Academy for Eating Disorders. http://www.aedweb.org/web/index.php/education/eating-disorder-information/eating-disorder-informatio...

  3. Helping Loved Ones. Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center. http://www.edreferral.com/helping_loved_ones.htm

  4. Types and Symptoms of Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/types-symptoms-eating-disorders

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