What Exactly Does an Eating Disorder Therapist Do?

January 30, 2024

Recovery from eating disorders (EDs) requires compassion, understanding, and a comprehensive approach. These mental health conditions can have serious consequences on one’s mental and physical health. As such, effective treatment of EDs delves into the intricate interplay of physical and psychological well-being. Eating disorder therapists are a type of mental health professional who are a part of this recovery team.

Here, we take a closer look at this aspect of ED recovery. From the initial focus on behavioral changes and nutritional restoration to the later stages where therapy delves into the emotional nuances of eating disorders, each step is important for a full recovery. Eating disorder therapists provide support, guidance, and treatment throughout this process, helping individuals and their loved ones cultivate a healthier relationship with themselves and with food. 

Eating Disorders Are Mental Illnesses

At the Alliance, we specialize in helping people access all types of support for eating disorder recovery, and we believe this starts with an understanding of what EDs are. So before we dive into the role that eating disorder therapists play in recovery, let us start with an overview of what eating disorders are.

Five Types of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that impact individuals on both emotional and physical levels. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) underscores five primary categories of eating disorders: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED), and Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). 

Eating Disorder Symptoms Are Not Always Clear

Each of these five defined disorders can look different depending on the individual. Symptoms of these disorders include fluctuations in weight, dietary habits, and physical health, but the root of the struggle resides in the mind. Individuals grappling with eating disorders often contend with intricate psychological battles, navigating complex relationships with food, body image, and self-worth. These disorders are not mere lifestyle choices or phases; they are formidable mental health conditions demanding understanding, empathy, and professional intervention. Additionally, the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder do not always follow the same path. To learn more about the five types of eating disorders, refer to our page here

By acknowledging eating disorders as mental illnesses, we pave the way for compassionate discourse and foster an environment where those affected can seek the support they need without judgment or stigma.

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What Is an Eating Disorder Therapist?

Eating disorder therapists are licensed mental health professionals who use evidence-based treatments to support folks who suffer from all types of eating disorders. Whether working individually or with group therapy, these counselors support individuals on their path to recovery.

Certifications and Education

Becoming an eating disorder therapist requires a solid educational foundation, a commitment to professional development, and a compassionate heart. Typically, a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field lays the groundwork for understanding the complexities of mental health and human behavior. 

To achieve licensure, individuals then must pursue a master’s or doctorate in social work or clinical mental health counseling, behavioral health, or nutrition and dietetics. Part of any therapist’s education includes working a set number of supervised experience hours. These hours allow aspiring therapists to apply their theoretical knowledge under the guidance of seasoned professionals. After meeting the required hours, individuals may apply for licensure, with specific requirements, like years of experience, varying by state.

Roles and Responsibilities

Eating disorder therapists wear multiple hats. Not only do they offer a professional perspective on their patients’ mental states, but they also offer trusted support and care to each individual they work with. They serve as empathetic listeners, providing a safe space for individuals to express their thoughts and emotions without judgment. Therapists help clients unravel the complex relationship between their emotions, self-image, and eating habits.

These professionals collaborate with their clients to develop personalized treatment plans, incorporating evidence-based therapeutic techniques. Additionally, therapists often work in tandem with clinicians, registered dietitians, and support networks to ensure a comprehensive and holistic approach to recovery.

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Addressing Physical Symptoms of Eating Disorders

While the roots of eating disorders reside in the mind, the urgency of addressing the physical symptoms cannot be overstated. Medical intervention, nutritional support, and collaborative efforts with healthcare professionals play a crucial role in stabilizing the physical health of individuals, creating a foundation that enables them to engage more effectively in the therapeutic process. Malnourished brains struggle to absorb new information and think clearly, creating barriers to the effectiveness of talk therapy. Undernourished individuals may experience heightened anxiety and difficulty focusing. Addressing both the physical and mental consequences of eating disorders simultaneously approach is often important for a supportive recovery.

Eating Disorder Therapy

But what does eating disorder therapy look like? Here, we go over the common therapeutic modalities used to treat eating disorders and provide a general overview of what you can expect from a session with an eating disorder therapist. The common thread throughout all the styles is the therapist supporting each individual in achieving their goals. These goals could include developing skills to manage mealtime stress and other eating disorder behaviors or fostering a heightened awareness of how emotions impact eating. Therapeutic techniques such as writing, mindfulness practices, and distraction strategies are integral components of this process.

Types of Therapy to Treat EDs

Depending on the type of eating disorder and the personal circumstances of the individual, one or more of these therapeutic modalities may be the best fit. Here are some common types of therapies employed in eating disorder treatment:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Identifies thought patterns contributing to eating disorders and assists in developing strategies to manage these thoughts. CBT fosters more accurate perceptions of one’s relationship with food, weight, body shape, and exercise.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): Focuses on managing difficult emotions, encouraging skills development in interpersonal relationships, emotional expression, distress coping, and mindfulness.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): Acknowledges that eating disorder behaviors are often responses to unpleasant feelings and focuses on changing actions rather than thoughts, gradually shifting core values.
  • Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT): Addresses rigid thinking patterns, emphasizing the big picture and helping patients navigate unconventional concepts through practical exercises.
  • Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: Explores underlying causes of eating disorders by delving into internal conflicts and motives, providing insight into the deeper psychological aspects of the condition.
  • Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT): Explores eating disorders within the context of social and interpersonal relationships, addressing factors like isolation, familial expectations, major life changes, and grief.
  • Family-Based Therapy (FBT): Particularly beneficial for children or adolescents with eating disorders, FBT involves family members in the treatment process, recognizing the importance of familial support.

What is a Session with an Eating Disorder Therapist Like?

Attending a session with an eating disorder therapist will look and feel different based on the therapist’s style and the patient’s relationship with their therapist. However, individuals can generally expect a comforting and empathetic presence. Therapists prioritize creating a safe space for open communication and fostering trust and collaboration. Therapy sessions may include discussions about thoughts and emotions related to eating behaviors, exploration of coping strategies, and the development of practical skills to navigate the complexities of recovery. 

Eating Disorder Therapist and the Road to Recovery

An eating disorder therapist won’t be able to offer a simple “cure,” but they will be able to share consistent support by giving you tools to help the present be more manageable and insight to understand past experiences. They make up a critical part of any treatment team as they can support patients throughout the process of recovery.

Behavioral Changes and Nutritional Focus

The early stages of treatment often prioritize behavioral changes aimed at normalizing eating habits and improving nutrition. This phase addresses the immediate physical needs, ensuring that individuals are equipped with the essential tools for nourishing their bodies and stabilizing their overall health. 

One potential challenge during this initial time is the condition of anosognosia. A patient with anosognosia means that they may not understand their current state and don’t comprehend the need for help. Some individuals with eating disorders may not recognize their illness or initially resist support in their recovery journey. 

Building Confidence in Co-occurring Conditions

As treatment progresses, the focus shifts towards building confidence in dealing with co-occurring conditions often associated with eating disorders, such as depression and anxiety. While behavioral changes target the physical aspects, talk therapy becomes increasingly valuable in exploring the emotional and psychological dimensions of eating disorders. Therapists work collaboratively with individuals to understand the emotions, self-image, and underlying traumas that may contribute to disordered eating patterns.

The Alliance: Empowering Eating Disorder Recovery through Connection

Getting treatment for an eating disorder can feel like a challenge in itself. Finding a therapist to work with can have added barriers to finding someone who you both trust and get along with. Eating disorder therapists play an important role in guiding individuals toward recovery. From addressing behavioral changes to navigating the emotional depths of disordered eating, eating disorder therapists can offer support throughout the recovery process. When trying to connect with different eating disorder therapists, you may find that they offer different therapeutic techniques and modalities. Therapists will be happy to share more about their approach as this can help you decide what type of therapy will be most supportive for you or your loved one.


Access to holistic eating disorder care is at the center of our work at the Alliance. If you or someone you know is seeking support for an eating disorder, please reach out to our helpline. Our team of mental health professionals offers resources to connect individuals with the best-fit treatment options across the country, encompassing inpatient care, outpatient care, and support groups. There’s never a wrong time to seek help. We hope you reach out so we can support you on your recovery journey.