Patients with eating disorders typically require a treatment team
consisting of a primary care physician, dietitian, and a mental health
professional knowledgeable about eating disorders. The multidisciplinary
membership of the Academy for Eating Disorders reflects the consensus
view that treatment must often involve clinicians from different health
disciplines including psychologists, psychotherapists, physicians,
dietitians, and nurses.
Research on the treatment of eating disorders is exploring how
different treatments can be helpful for different types of eating
disorders. The American Psychiatric Association has published a set of
practice guidelines for the treatment of patients with eating disorders
(American Psychiatric Association, Practice Guidelines for Eating
Disorders, American Journal of Psychiatry, 2000).
There is general agreement that good treatment often requires a
spectrum of treatment options. These options can range from basic
educational interventions designed to teach nutritional and symptom
management techniques to long-term residential treatment (living away
from home in treatment centers).
Most individuals with eating disorders are treated on an outpatient
basis after a comprehensive evaluation. Individuals with medical
complications due to severe weight loss or due to the effects of binge
eating and purging may require hospitalization. Other individuals, for
whom outpatient therapy has not been effective, may benefit from
day-hospital treatment, hospitalization, or residential placement.
Treatment is usually conducted in the least restrictive setting that
can provide adequate safety for the individual. Many patients with
eating disorders also have depression, anxiety disorders, drug and/or
alcohol use disorders and other psychiatric problems requiring treatment
along with the eating disorder.
The initial assessment of individuals with eating disorders
involves a thorough review of the patient's history, current symptoms,
physical status, weight control measures, and other psychiatric issues
or disorders such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or
personality issues. Consultation with a physician and a registered
dietitian is often recommended. The initial assessment is the first step
in establishing a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Outpatient treatment for an eating disorder often involves a
coordinated team effort between the patient, a psychotherapist, a
physician, and a dietitian (yet, many patients are treated by their
pediatrician or physician with or without a mental health professional's
Similarly, many patients are seen and helped by generalist mental
health clinicians without specialist involvement. Not all individuals,
then, will receive a multidisciplinary approach, but the qualified
clinician should have access to all of these resources.
There are several different types of outpatient psychotherapies
with demonstrated effectiveness in patients with eating disorders. These
include cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy,
family therapy, and behavioral therapy. Some of these therapies may be
relatively short-term (i.e., four-months), but other psychotherapies may
It is very difficult to predict who will respond to short-term
treatments versus longer term treatments. Other therapies which some
clinicians and patients have found to be useful include feminist
therapies, psychodynamic psychotherapies and various types of group
Psychiatric medications have a demonstrated role in the
treatment of patients with eating disorders. Most of the research to
date has involved antidepressant medications such as fluoxetine (for
example ProzacÂ®), although some clinicians and patients have
found that other types of medications may also be effective.
Regular contact with a registered dietitian can be an effective
source of support and information for patients who are regaining weight
or who are trying to normalize their eating behavior. Dietitians may
help patients to gain a fundamental understanding of adequate nutrition
and may also conduct dietary counseling, which is a more specific
process designed to help patients change the nature of their eating
Patients with eating disorders are subject to a variety of
physical and medical concerns. Adequate medical monitoring is a
cornerstone of effective outpatient treatment. Individuals with anorexia
nervosa may be followed quite closely (i.e., weekly or more) because of
the significant medical problems that this disorder poses for patients.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa should be seen regularly, but may not
require the intensive medical monitoring often seen in anorexia nervosa.
Individuals with binge eating disorder may need medical treatment for a
variety of complications of obesity, such as diabetes and
Patients for whom outpatient treatment is ineffective may
benefit from the increased structure provided by a day hospital
treatment program. Generally, these programs are scheduled from three to
eight hours a day and provide several structured eating sessions per
day, along with various other therapies, including cognitive behavioral
therapy, body image therapies, family therapy, and numerous other
interventions. Day Hospital allows the patient to live at home when they
are not in treatment, and often continue to work or attend school.
Inpatient treatment provides a structured and contained
environment in which the patient with an eating disorder has access to
clinical support 24-hours a day. Many programs are now affiliated with a
day hospital program so that patients can "step-up" and "step-down" to
the appropriate level of care depending on their clinical needs.
Although eating disorder patients can sometimes be treated on general
psychiatric units with individuals experiencing other psychiatric
disorders, such an approach often poses problems with monitoring and
containing eating disorder symptoms. Therefore, most inpatient programs
for eating disordered individuals only treat patients with anorexia
nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or variants of these
Residential programs provide a longer term treatment option for
patients who require longer term treatment. This treatment option
generally is reserved for individual who have been hospitalized on
several occasions, but have not been able to reach a significant degree
of medical or psychological stability.
Consequences of Eating Disorders
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for Eating Disorders
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