The 4 Simple Things that Make an Eating Disorder Treatment Effective

For many families, figuring out a plan for eating disorder treatment is overwhelming. Not only do they have to choose from the thousands of different programs out there,  they also have to learn all about eating disorders in the heat of a family crisis. On top of that, families are under pressure to choose quickly because treatment works better the sooner you start.

In order to make the process a little easier, we’ve put together a list of 4 important things we should prioritize when choosing eating disorder treatment. These are the things we want to see in the program we choose for ourselves, or for our loved one who’s currently struggling with disordered eating.

1. Early Intervention


Research shows that the first 3 years of an eating disorder are the best window of opportunity to start treatment. After that, disordered eating habits can become cemented in a person’s routine and personality. That makes lifelong struggles with relapse more likely.

Ideally, the best eating disorder treatment would begin before our loved one ever gets sick. If we as parents, friends, siblings, partners (etc.) could speak up when our loved ones first develop issues with self-esteem, we could prevent a lot of heartache and health risks. That’s why so many people are advocating for early screening among young teens designed to check for disordered eating and body image issues. The goal is to help people get counseling before they start binging, purging, or restricting food.

Families should be initiating treatment as soon as they start to notice signs of an eating disorder. If you’re asked to wait a very long time to start a certain program, try looking at other options.

2. Family Involvement in Eating Disorder Treatment


Eating disorder treatment should involve close family members as much as it is possible and appropriate. That’s not just because it’s a good idea to keep everyone in the loop. There is compelling research that Family Based Therapy (FBT) is the strongest course of action when a young person develops an eating disorder. For people with anorexia nervosa who start family based therapy before they’re 19 years old, the rates of recovery are between 75%-90%. In this context, recovery means that those young people had maintained their target body weight for at least 5 years after treatment. That’s incredible!

While one-on-one counseling is a powerful tool that you should look for in any eating disorder treatment, family therapy is important too. Find a program that emphasizes building skills as a family to help your loved one get better.

3. Focus on Medical and Nutritional Support


Getting your loved one stable, both medically and emotionally, is important. Part of getting medically stable means weight restoration. Treatment should focus on trying to bring weight back up to normal for those people with anorexia or bulimia, and bringing it back down for people with binge eating disorder.

Weight restoration is one of the most important parts of recovery. If someone is staying severely under or over weight, it’s a sign they’re still struggling with food. People who manage to hit their target weight are less likely to relapse. That’s why families should choose a program with a strong emphasis on physical recovery. However, families should remember that weight restoration needs to be balanced with therapy and emotional support. The best programs not only help you restore your normal weight, they should also  support you during the first year to help maintain it.

4. Appropriate Level of Care

Eating disorder therapies come in all shapes and sizes. There are different styles, treatment approaches, and most importantly 5 distinct levels of care.

  • General Outpatient – Best for people with less severe eating disorders who are medically stable.
  • Intensive Outpatient Treatment – This option is goo for those who need extra support, even though they are still medically stable.
  • Partial Hospitalization (PHP)- This level of care is also known as day treatment, since patients come in 5-7 days awake for 6+ hours at a time. It’s good for those with moderate to severe eating disorders who are medically stable. Many people use this option when transitioning out of residential treatment (next).
  • Residential Treatment – This is an intensive form of eating disorder treatment for people who are medically stable, but still need structure and support. It requires patients to move into the facilities for weeks or months at a time.
  • Inpatient Hospitalization – When people get sick or inured because of their eating disorder, and they are not medically stable, inpatient hospitalization is necessary. This is the most intensive option, but it is short-term. Patients stay in a hospital for 1-3 weeks while receiving monitoring and treatment.

Choosing the appropriate level of care that your loved one needs is a big decision. Some important factors to consider include the severity of the eating disorder, the diagnosis, history of relapse, and state of phsyical health. Families should consult with a licensed mental health professional or eating disorder specialist for this choice.