Bright Spots: Recent Breakthroughs in Eating Disorder Treatment Options

May 30, 2024

Living with an eating disorder is incredibly challenging and can ultimately be life-threatening. These conditions intertwine mental and physical health in complex ways. Caused by a range of factors, involving genetic, societal, environmental, and other influences, treating these disorders can be equally as nuanced. Individualized and holistic approaches are increasingly effective in addressing these disorders’ unique aspects. This article explores the different types of treatments for eating disorders, highlighting recent breakthroughs and various therapeutic modalities. By understanding and utilizing these approaches, we can better support those on their journey to recovery.

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Modern ED Treatment Requires a Multidisciplinary Approach

While there’s no “magical cure” for eating disorders, with access to appropriate care, individuals can live a life beyond their eating disorders. The multidisciplinary approach to treatment may combine talk therapy, medication, and other opportunities for comprehensive care, such as group therapy or family therapy.

Finding the “right” eating disorder treatment is a very individualized process. Treatment often requires an approach that prioritizes both the patient’s physical safety and treats the psychological distress that can be both a symptom and an underlying issue. Because of this, treatment will vary based on the individual patient’s needs. Here, we highlight some of the common therapy modalities, medication options, and treatment types that can support your recovery journey. 

To learn more or connect to all levels of eating disorder care, please reach out to The Alliance. Our licensed mental health professionals on our helpline can help connect you to the resources that work for you and your needs. 


Eating disorder treatment usually involves a type of therapy. This cornerstone of care can help address both the behavioral and psychological aspects of these disorders. Through various therapeutic approaches, individuals can explore the underlying issues surrounding their eating disorder, work through challenging distorted thoughts, and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

What is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a comprehensive term for treatments that use evidence-based practices to help someone identify and modify maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. The practice is rooted in foundational theory and data-backed studies, and it’s practiced by a psychologist or licensed mental health counselor. 

Types of Psychotherapy for Eating Disorder Treatment

Here are some of the common therapeutic modalities used to treat eating disorders.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is based on the principle that unhelpful thinking patterns and learned behaviors can lead to psychological distress. The process involves helping the patient identify and challenge their distorted thoughts and beliefs related to food, body image, and self-worth. 
  • Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT): IPT addresses the interpersonal relationships and social functioning that may contribute to eating disorders. By improving communication skills and resolving conflicts, individuals can try to reduce stressors that may trigger disordered eating behaviors.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with mindfulness practices to help individuals regulate their emotions, tolerate distress, and improve their relationships. DBT can be particularly effective for those who struggle with impulsive behaviors and emotional dysregulation.
  • Family-Based Treatment (FBT): FBT, also known as the Maudsley method, involves other family members in the treatment process. This approach is particularly effective for adolescents, as it empowers parents to take an active role in their child’s recovery.

While these therapeutic approaches provide valuable frameworks, it’s essential to recognize that eating disorder treatment is highly individualized. Each person’s journey is unique, shaped by their specific behaviors, underlying causes, and personal circumstances. Therapy, therefore, must be tailored to meet each individual where they are, providing the support and tools they need for their path to recovery.

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Many individuals with eating disorders also struggle with other mental health issues. For example, depression, anxiety, OCD, and substance use disorders can co-occur alongside anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. 

For some individuals, medication can be a helpful tool for managing these co-occurring mental health conditions. For example, medications like SSRIs can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, contributing to improved mood and better emotional regulation. Certain antidepressants have been shown to reduce episodes of bingeing and purging in patients with Bulimia Nervosa, and the antipsychotic, Olanzapine, has shown promising results in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa. Similarly, medications used to manage substance use disorders, such as naltrexone or buprenorphine, can help individuals reduce their reliance on harmful substances. Managing the symptoms of these co-occurring disorders with medication can help give the patient more capacity to address their eating disorder behaviors through therapy. 

Prescribing medication for mental illnesses has pros and cons. While it can be an incredible solution for some patients, others may not respond as well. Overall, using medication to support eating disorder recovery is only one piece to the puzzle. If you are curious about medication for yourself or a loved one, consult with your doctor, therapist, and psychiatrist to understand how it could be incorporated into your treatment plan.

Different Levels of Care for Eating Disorder Treatment

The treatment team for someone recovering from an eating disorder can often include mental health professionals, dietitians, primary care providers, psychiatrists, and/or other supportive healthcare providers. Depending on the individual’s specific needs and medical or psychiatric stability, some may need a more intense level of support and care. Here are a few options for different levels of eating disorder treatment. 

  • Residential Programs: Residential treatment programs offer a supportive, home-like environment where individuals can focus on recovery without the distractions and pressures of everyday life. These programs provide intensive therapy, nutritional support, and skill-building activities, fostering a sense of community and belonging.
  • Inpatient Care: For individuals requiring intensive, round-the-clock support, inpatient care provides a highly structured environment. This type of treatment can be suitable for those who require medical or psychiatric stability.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP): PHP offers a step-down level of care from inpatient or residential treatment. Individuals attend the program during the day and return home in the evenings. PHP provides structured support while allowing individuals to gradually reintegrate into their daily lives.
  • Support Groups: Support groups create a community of individuals who share similar experiences, providing mutual support and encouragement. These groups can be facilitated by a professional or peer-led, offering a safe space for individuals to share their challenges, successes, and coping strategies. The Alliance offers free, virtual & in-person, therapist-led support groups for both individuals struggling and for loved ones. To learn more about attending our support groups, check out this page for more information! 

ED Treatment Breakthroughs by Diagnosis

Regardless of diagnosis, eating disorder treatment usually involves a multifaceted approach. As we pointed out, each individual’s needs may warrant a different combination or intensity of treatment types. However, research does provide some guidance on which types of therapeutic and pharmaceutical modalities may be more effective for certain diagnoses. Here, we discuss some of the treatment options for different eating disorder diagnoses.

Anorexia Nervosa (AN)

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by severe restriction of food intake, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. Treatment for AN includes both psychological and physical support. For child or adolescent patients, family-based therapy (given early in diagnosis) tends to show improved outcomes compared to therapies administered after symptoms had further developed, emphasizing the importance of early intervention. 

Bulimia Nervosa (BN)

Bulimia Nervosa involves cycles of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging. Common treatments for BN may include Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), and some antidepressant medications, like Prozac, may be helpful. These treatment approaches can help patients regulate their emotions and manage their response to distress.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

Binge Eating Disorder is characterized by recurrent binge eating episodes that usually occur when individuals are not hungry and can extend past the point of fullness. Similar to BN, individuals often feel a sense of lack of control over the bingeing episodes. Dialectical Behavior Therapy can help individuals struggling with BED regulate emotions that may trigger disordered eating behaviors and can help interrupt the binge-restrict cycle.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

People with ARFID can have an aversion to eating certain foods or eat a limited variety of foods, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. ARFID can be caused by a variety of factors, but when fear is one of the drivers of food avoidance, exposure therapy and CBT have been shown to have promising results. Because ARFID more often shows up in children and adolescents, Family-Based Treatment (FBT) can be an effective way to support the whole family.

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED)

OSFED is a bit of the catch-all category for eating disorder diagnoses that don’t “exactly fit” the parameters of other diagnoses. However, this doesn’t mean that these disorders are any less harmful for the people who experience them. OSFED is unfortunately less studied than other types of eating disorders, but treatment will often encompass many of the same treatment approaches outlined above.

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Find Treatment with The Alliance

Treating eating disorders requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach that recognizes the interplay of mental and physical health. The diversity of causes—from genetic to environmental—means that individualized treatments are often essential for effective recovery. Combining therapy, medication, and other treatment modalities offers hope for those struggling with these disorders.

The National Alliance for Eating Disorders is dedicated to guiding individuals and their loved ones through the complexities of eating disorder treatment. By connecting people with personalized resources, The Alliance helps individuals access the support they need for recovery. Whether you’re seeking information, resources, or support, please call The Alliance’s helpline at (866) 662-1235 to talk to a licensed mental health professional.